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.
As the 300 guests at the Salon des Ambassadeurs dined on a Mediterranean fish plate with assorted mushrooms, Piper-Heidsieck champagne and a Palme d'Or strawberry delight, the 54th Cannes International Film Festival handed out its top honors Sunday.
Jodie Foster, who bowed out earlier this year as jury president, fulfilled her obligation as the closing ceremony's host. The awards were characterized as oddly conventional, with the 10-member jury sticking to more established filmmakers rather than the fresher talent from the 23 films in competition. In contrast, last year's jury came under fire for giving the top prize - the Palme d'Or - to Lars von Trier's controversial and divisive Dancer in the Dark.
The Italian film A Son's Room, about a family that is torn apart by the death of a child, took home the Palme d'Or, representing the first time that an Italian movie had taken the top honor since 1978. Its director and star, Nanni Moretti, raised both fists in the air in victory.
"I have often been told that this film represents a turning point in my career because it is a more adult, mature character. Maybe I'm not interested in caricatures any more," Moretti said in a news conference earlier this week, as reported by Reuters. Moretti has been nominated for the Palme d'Or four times and previously won the award for best director in 1994 for his comedy Dear Diary.
The other big winner of the evening was Austrian director Michael Haneke's film The Piano Teacher, a controversial tale about voyeurism and masochism. French actress Isabelle Huppert won the award for best actress for portraying a cold and sexually repressed woman who is titillated by one of her students, played by Benoit Magimel, who also won for best actor. The film won the Grand Prix award-runner up to the Palme d'Or.
"There are films that frighten you. You think they will take everything away from you, but they give you everything," Huppert said when she accepted her award. "I thank Bach, Schubert and Mozart."
It was not a stellar night for the Americans. The only big win for the United States was the shared award for best director by David Lynch and Joel Coen.
Lynch, whose 1990 film Wild at Heart won the Palme d'Or, picked up the director's award for his moody, noirish drama, Mulholland Drive, originally penned as a TV pilot a few years ago. Starring a cast of unknowns, the story centers on a woman who loses her memory after an accident on the famed winding road in Los Angeles, and finds help in the most unusual places. The concept was a tad too bizarre for television.
"At a certain point you realize you're in with the wrong people," Lynch told the The New Yorker. "Their thinking process is very foreign to me. They like a fast pace and a linear story, but you want your creations to come out of you and be distinctive. I feel it's possibly true that there are aliens on earth, and they work in television."
Coen is a Cannes darling who has won two previous director awards, one for the 1996 Fargo and the other for the 1991 Barton Fink, which also won the Palme d'Or. He scooped up his third director's award for his moody, noirish drama, The Man Who Wasn't There. Starring Oscar winners Frances McDormand and Billy Bob Thornton, this tale, shot in black and white, revolves around a hairdresser whose life is fairly mundane until he discovers his wife is having an affair, and he decides to blackmail the lover. Things appropriately go haywire, as they tend to do in a Coen film.
"Curiously, almost everyone in the movie wears a wig, or a hairpiece," Coen said. "So Thornton, who plays the principal character, is wearing one, James Gandolfini wears one, Tony Shalhoub wears one, Jon Polito wears one ... So the overall effect is that it really transforms the appearance of the actors. You almost don't recognise them."
The opening night extravaganza, Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge, enjoyed major popular and critical success. As did the Dreamworks' animated film, Shrek, now destined to become an animated classic. Neither film was seriously in contention for the top honors.
If the Americans received little in the way of accolades, the Asian contingent at the festival fell flat on its face. Even though there were seven features alone in the Official Selection, only a technical award was bestowed on the Taiwanese sound engineer, Tu Duu-chih, for his work on the two Taiwanese entries, Millennium Mambo and What Time is it There?.
In fact, some festival attendees felt the best films were either made 22 years ago, the director's cut of Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalyspe Now, or still in production, based on the 25-minute product reel for the upcoming Lord of the Rings.
Jury president Liv Ullmann hinted at some tough times during the selection process during her introductory speech at the ceremony, as reported by Variety. Noting that unanimity did not always prevail, her fellow jurors "fill[ed] me with anger." But she added, "we in the jury are still friends." It was reported that jury discussion sessions, which occurred daily, would last several hours, as each juror was required to elaborate on their interpretations of the films in competition.
Melanie Griffith won a lifetime achievement award, which took on a bittersweet quality when a few days before her father had died. In a tearful acceptance speech, she said, "It's hard not to see you out there the proud face of my father. Somehow, I know you're here, Dad, and I know your smile is big and, you old cowboy, I know you're up there saying, 'Why are you wearing that dress?'"
In the parallel Cannes awards, the French film Amour d'Enfance (Childhood Love) won the best film award for the Un Certain Regard sidebar and the Iranian film Zire Noure Mah (Under the Moonlight) won the Critics' Week Grand Prix. Sandrine Veysset's Martha … Martha won the Directors' Fortnight.
Cannes still remains a favorite of Jennifer Jason Leigh, at Cannes to promote her film, The Anniversary Party, in which she co-wrote, co-directed and costarred with Alan Cumming.
"It's the only time I think as actors today you get a sense of what it would have been like to have been a movie star back in the '30s and '40s, when the premieres were really big, and you walk up that red carpet or that blue carpet, and it's just incredible," she told The Associated Press.