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.
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.
Top Story: Playboy Models Undress for Musicians
It seems Grammy-winning rapper Nelly has managed to get a coterie of Playboy models to take off all their clothes. Nelly is one of several musicians picked to photograph the models in the buff for Playboy magazine's April issue, The Associated Press reports. The rapper's new shutterbug skills were recorded for the home video and DVD Playboy's Hip-Hop & Rock, released Tuesday. Other musicians participated, too, including Ja Rule, Xzibit, DMX, Bret Michaels, Tommy Lee, Korn's Jonathan Davis and Disturbed's David Draiman. According to Playboy founder Hugh Hefner, the guest photographers "took the work very seriously." Draiman, who photographed model Gina Patrone, said the shoot was easy for both of them, even though he had little experience as a photographer. "They gave me an idiot-proof camera that was basically point-and-shoot," he said.
MTV Hosts "T3" Party in Cannes
MTV and Sony will host a party at this year's Cannes Film Festival to celebrate the out-of-competition screening of Warner Bros.'Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, Reuters reports. According to MTV Europe, T3 stars Arnold Schwarzenegger, Kristanna Loken, Nick Stahl and Claire Danes, along with director Jonathan Mostow, will attend the shindig at Pierre Cardin's private villa, Le Palais Bulles (Bubble Palace), on May 17. The film is set for release July 2.
O'Connell Apologizes for Stereotypes
Actor Jerry O'Connell, who stars in the comedy Kangaroo Jack, is visiting Down Under this week to stave off negative press about the film's stereotypes of Australians, the AP reports. "I don't want to say it generalizes and stereotypes, but yes [veteran Australian actor] Bill Hunter does get drunk in every scene and yes, it does take us an hour to walk from Coober Pedy to Alice Springs," he said, referring to towns that are 370 miles apart. "It's a little silly but it's a fun romp," he said, adding that the main purpose of his promotional visit is damage control.
"Malcolm" Back for Fifth Season
Fox has picked up Malcolm in the Middle for a fifth season, keeping the dysfunctional family sitcom in primetime through the 2003-2004 TV season, Variety reports. The network consistently dominates Malcolm's timeslot among adults 18-49 and recently moved the show to the tentpole Sunday 9 p.m. time slot after years of following The Simpsons. The show, which stars Jane Kaczmarek, Bryan Cranston and Frankie Muniz, will premiere in off-net syndication this fall.
Celebs Sue Fry's Electronics
Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis and Denzel Washington filed lawsuits Monday in Los Angeles Superior Court against Fry's Electronics for allegedly using their images in newspaper advertisements without permission, the AP reports. The celebs say the ads, which ran in the Los Angeles Times and other major newspapers, could diminish their "hard-earned and well-deserved reputations as major motion picture stars and risks the potential for overexposure." Each actor is seeking $10 million in damages.
Pam Anderson Lettuce-Wrapped
Former Baywatch star Pamela Anderson has donned a lettuce-leaf bikini to persuade overweight Brits to become vegetarian. The BBC reports that Anderson launched the national campaign in Liverpool, which was recently named as one of the five "fattest" cities in the UK. The billboard poster, commissioned by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, will go up across Liverpool, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Stoke-on-Trent and Wolverhampton, the other four "fat" cities.
Dangerfield Recovering From Surgery
Comedian Rodney Dangerfield was in stable condition Wednesday as he recovered in an intensive care unit from a 12-hour arterial brain surgery to improve his blood flow for an upcoming heart valve replacement, the AP reports. Dangerfield, 81, remained heavily sedated and was expected to remain hospitalized for up to 10 days. His surgery took about four hours longer than expected, but his publicist, Kevin Sasaki, said Dangerfield was recovering on schedule. His heart valve surgery is planned about three weeks after he is released from the hospital.
Dr. Laura's Mother Not Murdered
Radio advice guru Dr. Laura Schlessinger's estranged mother, whose badly decomposed body was found in her Beverly Hills home in December, died of natural causes, Reuters reports. Police initially suspected foul play in Yolanda Schlessinger's death, but Los Angeles Coroner's officials said Wednesday that an autopsy and investigation revealed she had died of natural causes. Schlessinger, 77, had been dead for two months or more before her body was found. Police found her body after neighbors called them, concerned because they had not seen her in weeks and because her bird had stopped singing.
Role Call: Sullivan Tapped for "Barbershop 2," Newcomer Helms "Birdie" Update
Director Kevin Sullivan (How Stella Got Her Groove Back) will helm MGM's Barbershop 2, which is set for a summer start in Chicago. Sullivan replaces Tim Story, who directed the first installment and was on board for the sequel but later dropped out in favor of the DreamWorks comedy Date School ... Recent University of Southern California grad Jon M. Chu will direct a remake of the 1960 musical Bye Bye Birdie for Columbia Pictures and Red Wagon Prods. Although a script hasn't been written, Chu, 23, has turned in a treatment for his vision of the film--expected to be a more urban, hip-hop take than the original and aimed at younger moviegoers.