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.
Crystal Lake. Dumb kids in the woods. Sex drugs booze. A hulking maniac in a hockey mask wielding a machete. Yeah that about sums it up.
Are you kidding? The new Jason Derek Mears probably fares best among the actors because he doesn’t have a single word of dialogue. Everyone else unfortunate enough to stumble in front of the camera – Jared Padalecki Amanda Righetti Danielle Panabaker Travis Van Winkle – is basically fodder for the slaughter. Some of them get naked. Most of them get dead. Some die more gorily than others. No one dies quickly enough. Having previously (and woefully) directed the 2003 remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre helmer Marcus Nispel does his best – and worst – to resurrect yet another popular horror franchise from the past. He also adds absolutely nothing new to the formula. Quite frankly anyone could’ve directed this film. Judging by the results anyone did. This is the 12th Friday the 13th film for those keeping score at home and with any luck it’ll be the last. Of course it won’t be. But we can always hope.
About Schmidt is a curious slice of Americana. The film is really about ordinary Americans going about their everyday lives but the characters are so clearly drawn and the dialogue so rich you are immediately hooked. Somewhat reluctantly 66-year-old Warren Schmidt (Jack Nicholson) retires from his long-standing job as an insurance salesman. He wonders what he is going to do with his time now. His wife Helen (June Squibb) convinces him to buy a motor home so they can travel around the country together in their golden years. That would be great if Helen didn't bug Warren incessantly. He is also plagued by the fact his only daughter Jeannie (Hope Davis) is marrying Randall (Dermot Mulroney) a dimwitted fellow Warren does not consider worthy of his daughter (and really isn't). Still Warren would go on living his life without any change indefinitely even if he wasn't very happy because darn it that's what you do. But suddenly things do change for Warren--Helen unexpectedly dies leaving him with a big empty house and his own nagging thoughts which he writes down in letters to the third-world foster child he sponsors in Africa for $22 a month. Finally one day he wakes up with a purpose in life--to stop Jeannie's marriage. He decides to drive the Winnebago across the country to convince her she's making a mistake but as with any good soul-searching journey he discovers more things about himself than anything else.
Oscar-winning Nicholson is one of those performers who continually surprises you. He may have that same maniacal grin and the unmistakable "Jack" voice but he is an actor of immeasurable talent--and he goes way out on a limb as Warren Schmidt. He plays all 66 years right up there on screen in vivid Technicolor--down to the gray hair wrinkles black socks and saggy boxer shorts. Nicholson lets his vanity go to epitomize the aging white Midwest American man. The process the actor uses to transform Warren from a cold and selfish man into a somewhat decent human being is mesmerizing. This is Jack's movie and he should almost certainly get an Oscar nod for this. But to give credit to the rest of the cast almost everyone in the film turns in gutsy performances. Davis (Hearts in Atlantis) downplays her good looks to play the mousy Jeannie who eventually stands up to her father. Mulroney's performance as the mullet-haired Randall is a far cry from his romantic leading man in My Best Friend's Wedding. The supporting role which stands out the most is Randall's New Age mom Roberta as played by Oscar winner Kathy Bates. She bares it all--literally and figuratively--and gives the spunky Roberta a wonderful very human twist. Her scene with Nicholson in a hot tub is one for the movie anthologies.
Much like his excellent films Election and Citizen Ruth writer/director Alexander Payne likes to paint a picture of true blue Americans perhaps somewhat exaggerated for the big screen but nonetheless real. Anyone who sees About Schmidt will know at least one Warren Schmidt in their lives--an uncle a friend but more than likely a father. Payne exquisitely details this man's life visually and with the spoken word. From the opening shots of the insurance building Schmidt works in to seeing Warren sitting in his empty office boxes packed waiting for the hour hand to hit 5:00 so he can leave to his less-than-happy retirement party you immediately understand what this character is all about. He lives his life by the book rarely venturing off the beaten path until at 66 he realizes he wants to break free. As soon as Warren starts his journey things unravel ruts are broken out of and even though Warren won't entirely change who he is he tries to be a better person. His toast to his daughter at her wedding reception is classic--you think at any moment he is going to ruin it for her and do something typically "Schmidt-like " but he ends up surprising you instead. There are only a few moments when the film drags a little but for the rest it is riveting.