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.
Lions Gate via Everett Collection
When we last left our heroes, they had conquered all opponents in the 74th Annual Hunger Games, returned home to their newly refurbished living quarters in District 12, and fallen haplessly to the cannibalism of PTSD. And now we're back! Hitching our wagons once again to laconic Katniss Everdeen and her sweet-natured, just-for-the-camera boyfriend Peeta Mellark as they gear up for a second go at the Capitol's killing fields.
But hold your horses — there's a good hour and a half before we step back into the arena. However, the time spent with Katniss and Peeta before the announcement that they'll be competing again for the ceremonial Quarter Quell does not drag. In fact, it's got some of the film franchise's most interesting commentary about celebrity, reality television, and the media so far, well outweighing the merit of The Hunger Games' satire on the subject matter by having Katniss struggle with her responsibilities as Panem's idol. Does she abide by the command of status quo, delighting in the public's applause for her and keeping them complacently saturated with her smiles and curtsies? Or does Katniss hold three fingers high in opposition to the machine into which she has been thrown? It's a quarrel that the real Jennifer Lawrence would handle with a castigation of the media and a joke about sandwiches, or something... but her stakes are, admittedly, much lower. Harvey Weinstein isn't threatening to kill her secret boyfriend.
Through this chapter, Katniss also grapples with a more personal warfare: her devotion to Gale (despite her inability to commit to the idea of love) and her family, her complicated, moralistic affection for Peeta, her remorse over losing Rue, and her agonizing desire to flee the eye of the public and the Capitol. Oftentimes, Katniss' depression and guilty conscience transcends the bounds of sappy. Her soap opera scenes with a soot-covered Gale really push the limits, saved if only by the undeniable grace and charisma of star Lawrence at every step along the way of this film. So it's sappy, but never too sappy.
In fact, Catching Fire is a masterpiece of pushing limits as far as they'll extend before the point of diminishing returns. Director Francis Lawrence maintains an ambiance that lends to emotional investment but never imposes too much realism as to drip into territories of grit. All of Catching Fire lives in a dreamlike state, a stark contrast to Hunger Games' guttural, grimacing quality that robbed it of the life force Suzanne Collins pumped into her first novel.
Once we get to the thunderdome, our engines are effectively revved for the "fun part." Katniss, Peeta, and their array of allies and enemies traverse a nightmare course that seems perfectly suited for a videogame spin-off. At this point, we've spent just enough time with the secondary characters to grow a bit fond of them — deliberately obnoxious Finnick, jarringly provocative Johanna, offbeat geeks Beedee and Wiress — but not quite enough to dissolve the mystery surrounding any of them or their true intentions (which become more and more enigmatic as the film progresses). We only need adhere to Katniss and Peeta once tossed in the pit of doom that is the 75th Hunger Games arena, but finding real characters in the other tributes makes for a far more fun round of extreme manhunt.
But Catching Fire doesn't vie for anything particularly grand. It entertains and engages, having fun with and anchoring weight to its characters and circumstances, but stays within the expected confines of what a Hunger Games movie can be. It's a good one, but without shooting for succinctly interesting or surprising work with Katniss and her relationships or taking a stab at anything but the obvious in terms of sending up the militant tyrannical autocracy, it never even closes in on the possibility of being a great one.
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Peter Appleton (Jim Carrey) has it made. His screenwriting career is on the rise his first movie's just been made and he's got a cute girl. Life is good--until the House Un-American Activities Committee mistakenly fingers him as a Communist and he quickly falls from the A-list to the blacklist. Getting dumped by both his studio and his girl is nothing a little drinking can't remedy but after drowning his sorrows he nearly drowns himself when he decides to drive drunk and his car veers into the river knocking him unconscious. When Peter comes to he can't remember who he is or where he came from so he's taken in by the kindly people of Lawson a burg stuck in time and still mourning the loss of many of its sons in World War II. They mistake him for Luke Trimble one of their long-lost boys who went MIA in World War II and are overjoyed at his return. Luke's father Harry (Martin Landau) whose zest for life had dwindled so much that he let his beloved movie house The Majestic fall to ruin but with "Luke's" return he plans to reopen it. Celebrations abound. Peter-as-Luke even returns to his relationship with fiancée Adele (Laurie Holden). Meanwhile Peter may have forgotten who he was but the Feds haven't and they're on his tail.
When Carrey's given the right material like he was with The Truman Show he can exhibit moments of greatness. The Majestic doesn't give Carrey the leeway to show his quirky sensibilities demanding that he play it straight throughout the movie (there are a few--too few--glances at humor that Carrey doesn't play up). To bring off the kind of schmaltz this movie oozes Carrey had to bring something of an edge to his character. Instead Peter is neither likable nor unlikable coming off as a bland confused schmo until the climactic end which after two hours of his weak personality is wholly unbelievable. Landau is unexciting as a caricature of the sad sentimental old man without hope--you want to sympathize but there's something faintly chilly about him. Holden's liberated-woman lawyer might have played better in a contemporary movie; she looks and acts too much like a modern-day actress trying to portray a woman of the '50s.
Was this some kind of vanity project dreamed up by a director too taken with his own greatness and past success? Was Frank Darabont envisioning an It's a Wonderful Life for the next generation? (Psst…it's likely the majority of the modern moviegoing public doesn't know who Frank Capra is and could care less especially when the movie is as slow and as completely unbelievable as this one.) Apparently Darabont's in love with his own direction because hardly a moment goes by without some lingering reaction shot. Darabont took an intriguing story about amnesia and mistaken identity and slathered it with sap. Old-fashioned period stories can be lots of fun but it's imperative they be able to keep a present-day audience's interest by including a bit of modern wit and pace. Unfortunately this sticks to the straight-and-narrow. Nobody's going to buy the two-dimensional main characters the shiny happy townspeople or especially the schlocky my-country-'tis-of-thee finale. In its favor The Majestic's ultimate message is a nice one. The movie does have its heartfelt moments and its '50s feel is authentic if a little polished.