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.
Scale things down from the Capitol Building explosions, the venomous terrorist ploys, and the overarching subtext of international warfare, and you've got the real fun of White House Down: its character. Yet another melding of astronomical disaster and human charm from Independence Day director Roland Emmerich, the D.C.-set thriller actually veers the lot of its attention away from collapsing buildings (thankfully) and towards the nuanced moments between its affable stars: Secret Service hopeful Channing Tatum and freshly passionate commander in chief Jamie Foxx.
As an unlikely camaraderie forms between the two stars — who are forced to band together when Washington faces the wrath of American activists — we warm up to not a security guard and a president, but the men who occupy these positions: a lifelong underacheiver trying to get his act together to impress his intellectual middle school-aged daughter (who becomes one of the many hostages taken by the West Wing assailants) and a working class do-gooder who, while still enamored with his new place in the world, shows signs of cynicism about the political system and no shortage of conflict over the choices he's had to make... not to mention a nasty smoking habit he's trying to kick (gee, I wonder who he's supposed to be?).
Setting their differences aside in the interest of their country — Tatum's John Cale is a veteran and suggested conservative, while Foxx's President Sawyer ensnares the rage of his old white constituents for his peace-lovin' ways and lack of military background (seriously, who could he be?) — and of Cale's daughter Emily, the two develop a "buddy cop" formula that provides as many warm laughs as it does action thrills.
Thanks to the allure and comic chops of Foxx and, yes, Tatum, this motif seldom misses the mark. It's when the film aims in a different direction, shooting for sincere intensity over action-heavy candy, that some of the luster is lost. Never boring but sometimes hard to watch, thanks to the heavy artillery that is a terrorist ploy so vividly embedded in current events, the film loses its sense of "fun" in a plot that is at times too close to home. With the baddies led by Washington insiders — many of whom are not devoid of humanity but simply corroded by a flawed system and imperfect policies — White House Down sometimes seems to be a movie about our political situation, rather than a movie using our political situation to deliver a fun summer actioner. Unfortunately, the teetering of this line doesn't inject the film with depth as much as it does to confuse the viewer on what to feel.
Are we meant to ponder the gravity of White House Down's international climate? At times, it seems as though Emmerich is inviting us to do so... but then, a federal agent makes a crack about the president using a rocket launcher, or a plucky tour guide goes ape s**t on a terrorist for breaking a West Wing antique. We're back in the realm of the ridiculous, where we, and the movie, belong.
And when it keeps to this territory, White House Down is as much fun as you might want it to be. Oddly, when we think back on Independence Day, we don't cite the explosions and sweeping battles, but the laughable quips and exclamations — the "Welcome to Urf!"s and "Nobody's perfect"s. And that same human charm ebbs and flows throughout White House Down. When it veers from this path, honing in on an imperiled D.C. or a vindictive gang of vigilantes, we just wait for the fun again. But no more than a scene later, it's back, rocket launched right at us.
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In a post-Harry Potter Avatar and Lord of the Rings world the descriptors "sci-fi" and "fantasy" conjure up particular imagery and ideas. The Hunger Games abolishes those expectations rooting its alternate universe in a familiar reality filled with human characters tangible environments and terrifying consequences. Computer graphics are a rarity in writer/director Gary Ross' slow-burn thriller wisely setting aside effects and big action to focus on star Jennifer Lawrence's character's emotional struggle as she embarks on the unthinkable: a 24-person death match on display for the entire nation's viewing pleasure. The final product is a gut-wrenching mature young adult fiction adaptation diffused by occasional meandering but with enough unexpected choices to keep audiences on their toes.
Panem a reconfigured post-apocalyptic America is sectioned off into 12 unique districts and ruled under an iron thumb by the oppressive leaders of The Capitol. To keep the districts producing their specific resources and prevent them from rebelling The Capitol created The Hunger Games an annual competition pitting two 18-or-under "tributes" from each district in a battle to the death. During the ritual tribute "Reaping " teenage Katniss (Lawrence) watches as her 12-year-old sister Primrose is chosen for battle—and quickly jumps to her aid becoming the first District 12 citizen to volunteer for the games. Joined by Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) a meek baker's son and the second tribute Effie the resident designer and Haymitch a former Hunger Games winner-turned-alcoholic-turned-mentor Katniss rides off to The Capitol to train and compete in the 74th Annual Hunger Games.
The greatest triumph of The Hunger Games is Ross' rich realization of the book's many worlds: District 12 is painted as a reminiscent Southern mining town haunting and vibrant; The Capitol is a utopian metropolis obsessed with design and flair; and The Hunger Games battleground is a sprawling forest peppered with Truman Show-esque additions that remind you it's all being controlled by overseers. The small-scale production value adds to the character-first approach and even when the story segues to larger arenas like a tickertape parade in The Capitol's grand Avenue of Tributes hall it's all about Katniss.
For fans the script hits every beat a nearly note-for-note interpretation of author Suzanne Collins' original novel—but those unfamiliar shouldn't worry about missing anything. Ross knows his way around a sharp screenplay (he's the writer of Big Pleasantville and Seabiscuit) and he's comfortable dropping us right into the action. His characters are equally as colorful as Panem Harrelson sticking out as the former tribute enlivened by the chance to coach winners. He's funny he's discreet he's shaded—a quality all the cast members share. As a director Ross employs a distinct often-grating perspective. His shaky cam style emphasizes the reality of the story but in fight scenarios—and even simple establishing shots of District 12's goings-on—the details are lost in motion blur.
But the dread of the scenario is enough to make Hunger Games an engrossing blockbuster. The lead-up to the actual competition is an uncomfortable and biting satire of reality television sports and everything that commands an audience in modern society. Katniss' brooding friend Gale tells her before she departs "What if nobody watched?" speculating that carnage might end if people could turn away. Unfortunately they can't—forcing Katniss and Peeta to become "stars" of the Hunger Games. The duo are pushed to gussy themselves up put on a show and play up their romance for better ratings. Lawrence channels her reserved Academy Award-nominated Winter's Bone character to inhabit Katniss' frustration with the system. She's great at hunting but she doesn't want to kill. She's compassionate and considerate but has no interest in bowing down to the system. She's a leader but she knows full well she's playing The Capitol's game. Even with 23 other contestants vying for the top spot—like American Idol with machetes complete with Ryan Seacrest stand-in Caesar Flickerman (the dazzling Stanley Tucci)—Katniss' greatest hurdle is internal. A brave move for a movie aimed at a young audience.
By the time the actual Games roll around (the movie clocks in at two and a half hours) there's a need to amp up the pace that never comes and The Hunger Games loses footing. Katniss' goal is to avoid the action hiding in trees and caves waiting patiently for the other tributes to off themselves—but the tactic isn't all that thrilling for those watching. Luckily Lawrence Hutcherson and the ensemble of young actors still deliver when they cross paths and particular beats pack all the punch an all-out deathwatch should. PG-13 be damned the film doesn't skimp on the bloodshed even when it comes to killing off children. The Hunger Games bites off a lot for the first film of a franchise and does so bravely and boldly. It may not make it to the end alive but it doesn't go down without a fight.
Hollywood heartthrob Richard Gere, still every inch the "American Gigolo" at age 51, said today that if he could be any woman for a day, he would be the U.S. secretary of state. That's Madeleine Albright, for those of you who don't read newspapers or follow politics.
Gere, known for his roles in "Pretty Woman," "An Officer and a Gentleman" and "American Gigolo," professed his admiration for Albright to Diane Sawyer on ABC's "Good Morning America."
"The first image that came was the secretary of state," Gere responded when asked on the morning talk show program which woman he would choose to be.
"I think she's (Albright) in the middle of doing really important things right now and maybe the difficulties she faces being a woman doing those things in essentially an old boy's club (make me want to be her)," Gere added.
Sawyer said that when Albright was told of Gere's wishes, the diplomat laughed heartily, saying, "And I'd like to be him."
Gere, who was last seen on the big screen with Winona Ryder in "Autumn in New York," is currently promoting his new film "Dr. T and the Women."