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.
At the time of Scream’s release in 1996 the state of Hollywood horror was at a pretty low-point. For every Dracula there was a Frankenstein. For every original idea there were dozens of painful sequels. There were some truly terrifying films released during the decade but there wasn’t a lot we hadn’t seen before. Then along came Wes Craven’s now classic slasher pic a revisionist take on the genre that simultaneously dissected its tropes while embracing them. It was equally hilarious and horrific thanks to the auteur’s precise execution and Kevin Williamson’s sharp sardonic script that dynamically pooled the characters’ points of view with those of the audience. Scream’s self-awareness was a true game-changer that has carved a very nice place in film history for itself. Fifteen years and two sequels later the franchises’ principle players have all returned to Woodsboro to catch up on cinematic commentary and thwart the sadistic plans of yet another Ghostface killer in Scre4m.
In how many ways does this bloody new chapter differ from the others? Not many. The story begins when Neve Campbell’s Sidney Prescott now the best-selling author of a self-help book returns home on the last stop of her promotional tour. There she meets up with Dewey and Gale Weathers-Riley (David Arquette and Courtney Cox) her friends and mutual survivors of the Woodsboro Murders though there’s precious little time for a warm reunion because someone has inherited the mantle of Ghostface and begun taking out the town’s well-endowed teenagers. The trio along with a young and attractive cast of victims and suspects including Emma Roberts Hayden Panettiere Nico Tortorella and Rory Culkin attempt to stop the killer despite an escalating body count.
As with the original Williamson’s screenplay is the most valuable part of the production. He employs the same narrative formula he did in ’96 but puts it in contemporary context riffing on cinema’s current trends (namely sequelitis and the torture-porn craze the latter which the filmmakers are clearly not fans of) his own franchise (the opening self-deprecating sequence is absolutely riotous and perhaps the funniest in the entire series) and America’s social media obsession (Twitter Facebook and YouTube references take the place of pagers and other outdated cultural staples further separating the film from its predecessors) which plays a larger part in the story and its characters motivations than you really want to know. If there ever was a film for and about the been-there-done-that post-modern generation it’s Scre4m.
While Williamson is at the top of his game Craven’s direction doesn’t appear to have evolved much since helming the original (a sad fact considering his creative growth with Music From The Heart and Red Eye). A few eerie shots aside he doesn’t take any risks with the material resulting in a monotonous merry-go-round of murders that’s consciously grislier but noticeably less effective than those found in the earlier entries. Thankfully his enthusiastic cast is more than willing to go over-the-top and beyond to sell the (few) scares; Panettiere particularly stands out as the confident Kirby Reed as does Alison Brie as the slimy PR girl Rebecca Walters. They’re all archetypes fitting into the film’s modus operandi of amusingly adhering to conventions and making it relatively easy for you to predict who’s going to die without spoiling the fun.
Still with so many preconceived notions about what Scre4m should be it’s hard to imagine all moviegoers loving its throwback premise and downright silly tone. What was once clever is now contrived; what was once refreshing and exhilarating for horror buffs is now exploitative of their common knowledge and passion. As a horror-comedy hybrid it brings some funny but not a whole lot of fear; in other words it’s very much like the original. Not that there’s anything wrong with that…
Set in the turbulent ‘60s each character in Across the Universe represents a different aspect to the unstable times. There’s naïve Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood) whose eyes are opened to the possibilities of life beyond her WASPy sheltered upbringing; adventurous Jude (Jim Sturgess) who breaks away from his Liverpool working-class roots to make it as an artist in New York; and Lucy’s brother Max (Joe Anderson) a college dropout who eventually gets drafted and sent to Vietnam. There’s also Sadie (Dana Fuchs) a Janis Joplin-esque rock singer; her guitar-playing lover Jo-Jo (Martin Luther McCoy) who hails from the riot-torn streets of Detroit; and even a burgeoning lesbian named Prudence (T.V. Carpio). They are all soon swept up into the '60s' emerging psychedelic anti-war and counterculture movements while Across the Universe lets the songs from one of the era’s most influential bands tell the story. But what drives the film is Jude and Lucy’s love for each other—and all you need is love right? You know you are in for something different when indie darling Evan Rachel Wood (Thirteen) is the most recognizable star. Luckily for Across the Universe the cast of unknowns delivers--and then some. Making his film debut newcomer Sturgess is a particular standout looking very much like one of the Beatles boys in their heyday. His earnest performance as the love-struck Jude immediately hits a chord (pun intended) and he makes breaking out into a Beatles tune seem entirely natural. Wood doesn’t seem as comfortable with the vocals but the actress has a lovely voice--and of course handles Lucy’s emotional ups and downs with aplomb. All the rest of the supporting cast does a wonderful job adding their own unique reinterpretations to the songs (and yes both “Hey Jude” and “Dear Prudence” pop up). The big fun with Across the Universe however are the cameo appearances: Eddie Izzard sings “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” as a surreal circus ringleader; Joe Cocker sings “Come Together” alternating between a pimp bum and hippie; Salma Hayek takes nursing to a new level in a “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” number; and finally U2’s Bono sings “I Am the Walrus” as the Beat poet/counterculturist Dr. Robert. You haven’t experienced life until you've heard Bono sing “Goo goo g'joob.” In any original musical there is always something a little disconcerting when a character just breaks out into song even if it’s Julie Andrews standing on top of a mountain. But as with Moulin Rouge a character singing a song we all recognize--well that’s a little different. And honestly who doesn’t love Beatles music? Still director Julie Taymor (Frida) took a big chance creating a musical around the legacy that is Beatlemania. It must have been a daunting task searching through the annals of Beatles music to find just the right tunes for just the right moment--but her extremely inventive ways truly pay off. From Uncle Sam screaming “I Want You!” from a poster hanging in an Army recruiting office to Max and his college buddies running around campus belting out “With a Little Help from My Friends ” everything fits taking us on this journey of life love and self-enlightenment. Although Taymor’s forte clearly lies with the very wild and artistic most evident in Across the Universe’s psychedelic acid trips she also expertly highlights the stark reality of a turbulent time. Taymor is a romantic at heart though—a romantic who adores the Beatles. John Lennon would be proud.