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.
It was the trickle of pee heard around the world. Cannes attendees were aghast and/or amused an infamous scene from The Paperboy that shows Nicole Kidman urinating on Zac Efron; this is apparently a great salve for jellyfish burns which were covering our Ken Doll-like protagonist. (In fact the term protagonist should be used very loosely for Efron's character Jack who is mostly acted upon than active throughout.)
Lurid! Sexy! Perverse! Trashy! Whether or not it's actually effective is overshadowed by all the hubbub that's attached itself to the movie for better or worse. In fact the movie is all of these things — but that's actually not a compliment. What could have become somethingmemorable is jaw-droppingly bad (when it's not hilarious). Director Lee Daniels uses a few different visual styles throughout from a stark black and white palette for a crime scene recreation at the beginning to a '70s porno aesthetic that oscillates between psychedelic and straight-up sweaty with an emphasis on Efron's tighty-whiteys. This only enhances the sloppiness of the script which uses lines like narrator/housekeeper/nanny Anita's (Macy Gray) "You ain't tired enough to be retired " to conjure up the down-home wisdom of the South. Despite Gray's musical talents she is not a good choice for a narrator or an actor for that matter. In a way — insofar as they're perhaps the only female characters given a chunk of screen time — her foil is Charlotte Bless Nicole Kidman's character. Anita is the mother figure who wears as we see in an early scene control-top pantyhose whereas Charlotte is all clam diggers and Barbie doll make-up. Or as Anita puts it "an oversexed Barbie doll."
The slapdash plot is that Jack's older brother Ward (Matthew McConaughey) comes back to town with his colleague Yardley (David Oyelowo) to investigate the case of a death row criminal named Hillary Van Wetter. Yardley is black and British which seems to confuse many of the people he meets in this backwoods town. Hillary (John Cusack) hidden under a mop of greasy black hair) is a slack-jawed yokel who could care less if he's going to be killed for a crime he might or might not have committed. He is way more interested in his bride-to-be Charlotte who has fallen in love with him through letters — this is her thing apparently writing letters and falling in love with inmates — and has rushed to help Ward and Yardley free her man. In the meantime we're subjected to at least one simulated sex scene that will haunt your dreams forever. Besides Hillary's shortcomings as a character that could rustle up any sort of empathy the case itself is so boring it begs the question why a respected journalist would be interested enough to pursue it.
The rest of the movie is filled with longing an attempt to place any the story in some sort of social context via class and race even more Zac Efron's underwear sexual violence alligator innards swamp people in comically ramshackle homes and a glimpse of one glistening McConaughey 'tock. Harmony Korine called and he wants his Gummo back.
It's probably tantalizing for this cast to take on "serious" "edgy" work by an Oscar-nominated director. Cusack ditched his boombox blasting "In Your Eyes" long ago and Efron's been trying to shed his squeaky clean image for so long that he finally dropped a condom on the red carpet for The Lorax so we'd know he's not smooth like a Ken doll despite how he was filmed by Daniels. On the other hand Nicole Kidman has been making interesting and varied career choices for years so it's confounding why she'd be interested in a one-dimensional character like Charlotte. McConaughey's on a roll and like the rest of the cast he's got plenty of interesting projects worth watching so this probably won't slow him down. Even Daniels is already shooting a new film The Butler as we can see from Oprah's dazzling Instagram feed. It's as if they all want to put The Paperboy behind them as soon as possible. It's hard to blame them.
A pathetic shell of a man shy milquetoast Willard Stiles (Crispin Glover) leads a lonely life caring for his dying mother in their dirty and decrepit old mansion where his late father's portrait (of Bruce Davison Willard in the 1971 original) hangs in gloomy watch over his urn of ashes no lights are ever on and rats are overrunning the basement. He's got a miserable desk job working for the cruel man who took over Willard's family business and who gives him nothing but grief day in and day out. When his mother orders Willard (whom she calls "Clark" as she hates his given name) to kill the rats breeding downstairs he not only can't bring himself to do it he goes so far as to make pets of them. Socrates gets favored-rat status inspiring resentment in Ben a huge black rat that Willard requently and unceremoniously throws into the basement by its thick tail. But befriending them doesn't end there; when Willard discovers that he can psychically command his new--and quickly multiplying--friends to do things like "tear it up " he employs this four-legged army to exact revenge upon his enemies. Willard's control is short-lived however and when jealous Ben takes charge of the rat pack nothing can stop the roiling hordes from "tearing up" whatever--and whoever--they want.
Crispin Glover (The River's Edge Back to the Future) was born to play seething manic Willard. Sadly Glover is one of Hollywood's most underrated actors no doubt because he chooses off-putting movies and characters like these that are devastatingly funny pitiable and abhorrent all at once. Here he delivers an ace performance as a troubled young man who gradually slips down the slope of madness into utter dementia. Ultimately Willard is as awful as anyone else yet the gut-wrenching emotional roller-coaster ride Glover takes us on creates a weird empathy for this antihero as his snarling features twist from doubt to anger to fear to sadness in the blink of an eye. R. Lee Ermey is a monster as Willard's boss Frank Martin; Jackie Burroughs as Willard's ghastly revolting mother is given some of the movie's funniest lines; and Socrates and Ben (rat? CGI? Chinchilla?) bring it home.
Written and directed by Glen Morgan (screenwriter Final Destination X-Files) Willard is a fascinating character study made even more so by its subtext of betrayal. The term "rat" can be used to describe one who betrays and everyone in this movie is a "rat " so to speak: Willard's family is betrayed; Willard's parents betray him; Willard betrays his animal friends; Willard is betrayed. The only non-"rats" are in fact the furred-and-whiskered ones who repulsive as they may be are loyal until given reason not to be. The production values and editing are outstanding the script is tight some of the lines are laugh-out-loud funny and the blacker-than-black humor will appeal to the sort of people who won't mind watching a kitty cat meet its demise to Michael Jackson's schmaltzy "Ben." That said animal lovers beware: Even though you know it's not real Willard contains some horrifying scenes. Still despite the vile turns the movie takes you have to hand it to Morgan who is unafraid nay eager to go there. You on the other hand may not be so willing.
A vibrant New York couple--novelist Alex (Ben Stiller) and magazine layout artist Nancy (Drew Barrymore)--who are tired of their cramped quarters in Manhattan and long for a real home of their own. Miraculously they find what they think is the perfect duplex in Brooklyn; it has stained glass windows a cute little "writer's nook" for Alex--and an upstairs apartment that would give them extra space for a nursery. The only problem is the seemingly kindly old lady named Mrs. Connelly (Eileen Essell) currently living in the rent-controlled space and doesn't look to be vacating anytime soon. No matter. Alex and Nancy still love the place settling into their dream home and making do with their new neighbor. Yet "making do" turns into a full-fledged war as Alex and Nancy soon discover exactly what a problem Mrs. Connelly can be. As their blissful life begins to seriously fray around the edges the couple decides that they must get the needy irritating and noisy Mrs. Connelly out--or lose their sanity forever. Duplex isn't very complicated thank goodness but makes sure to spread a requisite amount of mean-spiritedness.
The key to making a simple story like this one work is populating it with the right actors and the comic pairing of Stiller and Barrymore suits the material to a tee. Stiller seems born to play the hapless everyday guy who manages to get himself into one mishap after another (There's Something About Mary Meet the Parents) and has a predisposition to having terrible things happen to his genitals. The "franks and beans" scene in Mary in which Stiller's character gets it caught in his zipper is only matched by the scene in Duplex where Nancy nearly shoots Alex's "frank" off. Poor guy. As the other half of the duo Barrymore proved to the movie world she was adept at comedy when she bumbled her way through Never Been Kissed and as Nancy gets her fair share of bumps bruises--and electrocutions. The best part of the film however is Essell as Mrs. Connelly. Where did they find this old bird? The actress has only done a few television gigs but obviously has a mean streak deep within. Mrs. Connelly comes off so sweetly dense and irritatingly innocent that when she finally shows her true colors as she fights off a hit man (oh yes it does come to that) you understand perfectly why the old coot has outlasted all the previous duplex owners.
Obviously director Danny DeVito's forte is painting the "black" in black comedy. Take for example some of his previous directorial efforts including Death to Smoochy about a disgruntled ex-children's talk show host who tries to off his replacement; The War of the Roses about a married couple who are literally at each other's throats in a fierce divorce; and Throw Momma from the Train about a dimwit who convinces a writer to kill his demonic mother. It's clear DeVito has the gift of dark humor and whether you are a fan of it or not at least you know it's being accomplished by a pro. Duplex's down-and-dirty moments of which there are plenty make you laugh but at the same time feel uncomfortable. And then there are some that make you want to just plain turn away especially the scene where Nancy throws up all over Alex's face. Honestly is that needed? Why prompt the gag reflex in your audience when they're watching your movie? Yuck. At least Duplex helps you forget the recently released dream home-turned-nightmare snoozer Cold Creek Manor.