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.
Be afraid, very afraid.
It's like something out of Kentucky Fried Movie, where the actors on the screen can see what you're doing with your significant other during the showing. Digital cable and satellite television companies know what you're watching on TV at any given second, and starting this fall they will test software that will target ads to individuals based on their key demographics, including income, age, gender and ethnic origin.
For instance, households in a posh suburban neighborhood would see the new Lexus commercial, while a rental apartment building down the block would only see ads from Hyundai. Households with children would see ads for diapers and bicycles, while retirees would see ads featuring Ed McMahon selling life insurance.
The programs for this sort of directed, micro-targeted advertising will be tested by AT&T this fall in Aurora, Colorado, to be followed by similar tests from Time Warner and Cox Communications. AT&T is the largest cable operator in the United States.
The companies developing such intimate "addressable advertising" hope in due course to send two different ads to two different TVs in one household, depending on who's watching either one.
But gathering all of this personal information should be a cause for concern. While the cable companies state that advertisers will not receive personal information on any individual, do we really want the cable companies to collect this information and use it internally, largely without consent from the public? Can the cable companies force us to let them monitor our viewing habits simply because we purchase a digital cable option?
Jeff Chester is the executive director of the recently formed Center for Digital Democracy in Washington, D.C., whose mission is to analyze new information technologies in the broadband era and to help safeguard the public from those technologies.
"An infrastructure is being built in this country to surveil every TV user, which sets the stage for unfair advertising practices.
"Congress must address this issue. We shouldn't allow this infrastructure to be built without the public being aware of how it will affect their children and families.
"This is a commercial surveillance tool that would have been the dream of the K-G-B, and now it is in the hands of the C-A-B-L-E."
Chester suggested that Congress would need additional legislation to address the possible abuses presented by the system.
Currently, the 1984 Cable Communications Policy Act requires cable companies to disclose what personal information from subscribers they acquire each year and forces them to obtain written permission from that subscriber before sharing said information. It doesn't, however, limit what information they can acquire, and it doesn't require any oversight into how that information is used internally.
AT&T spokeswoman Tracy Baumgartger said the cable giant is aware of the public's apprehensions.
"Privacy is one of AT&T Broadband's key concerns. When we do anything that even approaches the privacy of our customers we send out notifications to alleviate those concerns.
"In this case the software targets 'buckets' of consumers. The advertiser will know how many people are in a 'bucket' but not who specifically is in a particular bucket. So there's no privacy concern.
"AT&T is committed to keeping our customers' information private."
AT&T has gone on record to state that it would ask subscribers for approval to use acquired information, even internally. But cable companies can always sweeten the pot for potential sign-ups with perks such as reduced rates or extra channels.
The love of money--the root of all evil--spurred this project on, and will certainly see it through fruition. If advertisers are willing to spend so much money on television advertising each year to enter random homes, imagine how much more they would be willing to pay to reach prized potential pigeons using the cable company's information.
"[Addressable advertising] delivers incredible value on all fronts--for advertisers, customers and operators--and we're thrilled that the first trial of our service will be with an industry leader like AT&T," said David Reese, president of ACTV, Inc., which is developing the technology to deliver the targeted ads. "We believe that our SpotOn technology will create a paradigm shift in TV advertising."
That paradigm shift offers advertisers the power of video combined with the precision of micro-targeted marketing--a lethal combination that might spell doom for the last remaining shreds of personal privacy in the United States.