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.
A small army of media reps and publicists, only mildly nervous following a government warning of possible terrorist attacks, patiently filed through metal detectors in the wee hours of Feb. 12 for the announcements of the 74th Annual Academy Awards nominations. And while the anticipatory buzz was a bit more subdued than usual, Oscar rewarded with a not-exactly-predictable crop of nominees, spreading the wealth among a wide-ranging group of films.
Last year's Best Supporting Actress winner Marcia Gay Harden (Pollock) was looking fresh for the pre-dawn occasion in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences' Beverly Hills headquarters, wearing a smart black pantsuit. Moments before the announcements, Harden stood in the wings of the Academy's Samuel Goldwyn Theater making excited, pixie-ish faces at one of her handlers, who had the actress present herself for a last-minute check to ensure her dark ensemble was fully buttoned and lint-free. "I love it," Harden whispered gamely as she was inspected. "You've got to do it."
Harden then joined Academy president Frank Pierson to announce the top ten categories of the 24 different Oscar races, including the first ever animated feature film category. And while two expected powerhouse films, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (with 13 nominations) and A Beautiful Mind (with eight), dominated in several categories, many nods were given to films that had already been mentioned as possible Oscar contenders by the Golden Globes, the Directors Guild, the Screen Actors Guild, the Writers Guild and other award-bestowing organizations.
In the end, almost every major movie with early buzz came up with at least one nomination. But the real heavyweights landed in the Best Picture category, which features a highly competitive field comprised of A Beautiful Mind, The Lord of the Rings, In the Bedroom, Moulin Rouge and Gosford Park.
The 800-pound gorilla--or is that orc?--among the nominees was The Lord of the Rings, only the seventh film in history to snag a baker's dozen worth of nods (historically, only All About Eve and Titanic scored more with 14), but earned only one acting nod, a supporting nom for Ian McKellen as the wizard Gandalf. New Line, the studio behind the film, was so dedicated to getting older Academy members to screen the fantasy flick that one member told Hollywood.com he had a DVD of the film hand-delivered within hours when he told the studio he hadn't received a screening copy.
In contrast, the much smaller but equally well-marketed film (from Miramax, the grand champ of Oscar campaigns) In the Bedroom received five nominations, and while none were in technical categories and director Todd Field was bypassed, it snared three nominations in the prestigious acting categories, for Sissy Spacek, Tom Wilkinson and Marisa Tomei.
Still, it may be tough for either the fantastic visuals of Lord of the Rings or the measured angst of In the Bedroom to triumph over A Beautiful Mind, which seems to gather more momentum with each passing day. Not only did star Russell Crowe garner his third consecutive Oscar nomination as expected, supporting actress Jennifer Connelly scored her first nod, as did director Ron Howard. The film is also nominated for adapted screenplay, original score, film editing and makeup. If Crowe--who took home last year's trophy for Gladiator--wins, he'll join the elite ranks of Tom Hanks, Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy and Luise Rainer as a back-to-back Oscar winner.
Perhaps the biggest success story among the nominations was the strong performance of Moulin Rouge, a you-either-love-it-or-you-hate-it modern musical that, thanks to 20th Century Fox's aggressive Oscar campaign and almost a year of relentless stumping from director Baz Luhrmann, scored with Academy voters, tying A Beautiful Mind's eight nods--including Best Picture. But despite accolades for lead actress Nicole Kidman and nods in several technical categories, Luhrmann, star Ewan McGregor and the film's music were snubbed.
Gosford Park also performed admirably, garnering seven nominations, including two for supporting actress. But forgotten was Memento, considered a leading contender throughout most of the year but left behind with but two noms, for original screenplay and editing. Black Hawk Down, the military drama that has seen its popularity skyrocket since its Christmas release, was also downed as a best picture contender but soared with four nominations.
There were a few interesting wrinkles in the acting categories. Provoking the biggest response among the live audience was the nomination for Ali's Will Smith, a major movie star who saw his chances at Oscar gold rise when he was tapped for a Golden Globe nom, then get murkier when he was bypassed by the SAG Awards. Smith joined Denzel Washington (Training Day) among the Best Actor nominees, marking the first time two African American men have been named simultaneously in that category.
Just ten hours before the announcements, Jon Voight was rooting for his Ali co-star. "There'll be a lot of people having sleepless nights," said Voight, out on the town in Hollywood on the night before the nominations were revealed. "I sure hope he gets it." Voight--previously nominated for Midnight Cowboy, Runaway Train and a 1978 Oscar winner for Coming Home--was more sanguine about his chances for being feted for his nearly unrecognizable turn as sportscaster Howard Cosell, and his humility was rewarded with a Best Supporting Actor nod.
Conspicuously absent among the acting nominees was Voight's son-in-law, Billy Bob Thornton, who was widely praised for his roles in three 2001 films, The Man Who Wasn't There, Bandits and Monster's Ball--indeed, Thornton's multiplicity of good work may have divided his Oscar votes. His absence may have opened the field for Academy favorite Sean Penn, nominated for I Am Sam, which otherwise left voters unmoved.
Conversely, the year's most hyped actress, Kidman--like Smith, overlooked by SAG--managed to withstand her own toughest competition--herself in The Others--and pulled off a Best Actress nomination. She joined Spacek, Halle Berry (Monster's Ball), Renee Zellweger (Bridget Jones's Diary) and Judi Dench (Iris).
The oft-nominated Dench may have had an added lucky charm in the form of her co-star, Kate Winslet, who was nominated in the supporting actress field for playing writer Iris Murdoch, the same character as Dench. The only other time two actresses were nominated for playing the same character was in 1997, when Gloria Stuart and--you guessed it--Winslet were singled out for Titanic.
An actor whose surprise SAG nod may have helped his Oscar chances was Ethan Hawke, whose role as a rookie cop in Training Day landed him among the supporting actor nominees. He edged out the buzzed-about Steve Buscemi (Ghost World) to join Jim Broadbent, McKellen, Voight and Ben Kingsley, still on a roll for his blistering turn in Sexy Beast.
Two grand dames from Gosford Park's Brit Pack of distinguished thespians made the cut in the supporting actress category: Helen Mirren (in her second Oscar nomination) and Maggie Smith (in her sixth!) rounded out a roster that features former Academy Award winner Tomei, three-time nominee Winslet and first-timer Connelly.
Gosford Park's maverick director Robert Altman survived a DGA snub to take home his fifth nomination in the directing category (earlier noms came for M*A*S*H, Nashville, The Player and Short Cuts). And while In the Bedroom's Field and Moulin Rouge's Luhrmann join the ranks of directors whose films were nominated as best picture but who failed to be nominated themselves, Black Hawk Down's Ridley Scott and Mulholland Drive's David Lynch managed to nab slots, joined by Howard and Lord of the Rings' Peter Jackson.
In what may be a foreshadowing of things to come, each of the three nominees in the brand-spanking-new animated feature film category--Shrek, Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius and Monsters, Inc. --featured CGI animation over the more conventional ink and paint style. Shrek was frequently discussed as a best picture nominee, but while it didn't make the cut there it was recognized in the adapted screenplay field.
The whimsical and visually inventive French film Amélie was the standout among the foreign film nominees (joining Norway's Elling, India's Lagaan, Bosnia & Herzogovina's No Man's Land and Argentina's Son of the Bride). Amélie was also tapped in four other categories, including art direction and original screenplay.
Paul McCartney proved the old Beatle still has Wings, scoring an original song nomination for his end-title track to Vanilla Sky, the much-debated film's only nod. In the Oscar ranks, McCartney still has a long way to go to match composer John Williams, who is the single most nominated living person with 41 nominations, receiving not one but two this year for his original scores for A.I.: Artificial Intelligence and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. Only Walt Disney (with 64) and composer Alfred Newman (with 45) have more.
Speaking of both Disney and Newman, the latter's nephew Randy continued his streak as one of the Academy's favorite composer-songwriters, garnering two nominations--for original score and original song--for his music from Disney's Monsters, Inc.
With all the changes and delays forced upon Hollywood in the last week, there's one little story I read about that's worth mentioning. The terrorist attacks happened right at the tail end of the Toronto Int'l Film Festival. Many celebrities were stranded by the closure of the airports, so as an alternative, Universal Pictures chartered a bus to go from Toronto to Los Angeles and hired two drivers so the bus would not have to stop. Among the passengers was the provocative director David Lynch, whose new film Mulholland Drive premiered at the festival. According to a report on Thestar.com, Lynch also happened to have a film camera with him to film the long trip home. Think about what a fascinating movie that would be, especially with Lynch's skewed perspective. And one, I would imagine, that would garner some attention, if Lynch decides to make something of it. If he doesn't, maybe I can get him to send me a copy anyway.
Hudson skips out on "Girl"
Actress Kate Hudson mysteriously pulled out of her next film project The Girl With the Pearl Earring. I hope it isn't because of the awful title because, Kate, that can always change (a must, in this case). No, those powers that be aren't quite sure why Hudson left the project in the dust, triggering producer Intermedia Films to pull the plug on financing just four weeks before filming was to start. The film is based on Tracy Chevalier's best-selling novel about a maidservant of the 17th century Dutch painter Jan Vermeer and is being directed by Mike Newell. Ralph Fiennes is still attached to star as Vermeer. Even more odd is the fact Hudson pursued this project vehemently and was thrilled to be doing the movie. Will there be lawsuits involved? Perhaps. But make no mistake, producer Andy Paterson is determined to recast and move on. Just change the title, Andy.
Carvey is a "Master of Disguise"
Dana Carvey, where the heck have you been? We've certainly missed you. Wish you were still on Saturday Night Live, but of course, you had to move on--even though your track record in films hasn't been the best in the world. However, we are always willing to give you another chance cause you are one funny guy. But Dana, you've got to choose wisely and from the sounds of your next film, you have not done that. The film, called Master of Disguise, is about a man who finds out his family has been masters of disguise for generations. To save his parents from an evil bad guy, he must quickly learn the family's unique talents from his grandfather. It also stars Jennifer Esposito (Don't Say a Word) as the love interest. Well, that's OK, Dana, it just good to see you back on your feet.
"Bad News" for Forman
Director Milos Forman (The People vs. Larry Flynt) has set his sights on Warner Bros.' Bad News from screenwriter/playwright Doug Wright (Quills), based on a novel from Donald Westlake. The story centers on a career crook, John Dortmunder, who gets involved in an underhanded takeover of an Indian gambling casino. However, he soon realizes that he's set himself up to be ripped off-unless, of course, he can rip off his partner first. Well, from what sounds like a fairly typical doublecross movie, the redeeming factors are the writer and director, each provocative in their own right. And of course, the cast has got to be good for this one to work.
Another video game hits the screen
That's right. These video games are just ripe fruit for the picking by studio execs. Now, it's Sega's popular The House of the Dead horror games that are getting the Hollywood treatment. Looking to start filming mid-January, the story takes place on an island off the coast of Florida that is inhabited by zombies, monsters and creatures who wreak havoc on land, in the air and in the water. To try and stop the insanity, a diverse group of multiethnic college coeds and a Coast Guard officer must get on the island and destroy the evil entity living in the House of the Dead. I can see the teenagers lining up now.
Seagal is "Half Past Dead"
Well, at least Steven Seagal should be--then we wouldn't have to be subjected to any more of his movies. But alas, that's out of my hands. His latest is Half Past Dead from Franchise Pictures, being described as a Die Hard in prison. Wait, wasn't Under Siege Die Hard on a U.S. Navy battleship? Right. This story revolves around a man (Morris Chestnut) who masterminds a plan to infiltrate a high-tech prison in an attempt to persuade a death row inmate to tell him the whereabouts of $200-million worth of gold from an old heist the FBI has never been able to solve. Whew! Seagal plays an FBI agent who tries to stop him. Good luck with that, Steven.