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 some point in the early years of the 21st century a bunch of Hollywood executives must have gotten together and decided that animated films should be made for all audiences. The goal was perhaps to make movies that are simultaneously accessible to the older and younger sets with colorful imagery that one expects from children’s films and two levels of humor: one that’s quite literal and harmless and another that’s somewhat subversive. The criteria has resulted in cross-generational hits like Wall-E and Madagascar and though it’s nice to be able to take my nephew to the movies and be as entertained by cartoon characters as he is I can’t help but wonder what happened to unabashedly innocent animated classics like A Goofy Movie and The Land Before Time?
Disney’s Winnie The Pooh is the answer to the Shrek’s and Hoodwinked!’s of the world: a short sweet simple and lighthearted tale of friendship that doesn’t need pop-culture references or snarky dialogue to put a smile on your face. Directors Stephen J. Anderson and Don Hall found some fresh ways to deliver adorable animation while keeping the carefree spirit of A.A. Milne’s source material in tact. Their story isn’t the most original; the first part of the film finds Pooh Piglet Tigger and Owl searching for Eeyore’s tail (a common plot point in the books and past Pooh films) and hits all the predictable notes but the second half mixes things up a bit as the crew searches for a missing Christopher Robin whom they believe has been kidnapped by a forest creature known as the “Backson” (it’s really just the result of the illiterate Owl or is it?).
The beauty of hand-drawn animation all but forgotten until recently is what makes Winnie the Pooh so incredibly magnetic. There’s an inexplicable crispness to the colors and characters that CG just can’t duplicate. It’s a more personal practice for the filmmakers and should provide a refreshing experience for audiences who have become jaded with the pristine presentation of computerized imagery. The film is bookended by brief live-action shots from inside Robin’s room an interesting dynamic that plays up the simplicity of youth ties it to these beloved characters and brings you right back to memories of your own childhood.
With a just-over-an-hour run time Winnie the Pooh is short enough to hold the attention of children but won’t bore the parents who will love the film mainly for nostalgic musings. Still it’s the young’uns who will most enjoy this breezy bright and enchanting film that proves old-school characters can appeal to new moviegoers.
WHAT IT’S ABOUT?
Ronnie Barnhardt is a kickass shopping-mall head-security guard with severe delusions of power. He meets his match when a cynical police detective is called in to take care of business after Ronnie and his crew fail to stop a parking lot flasher and can’t foil a jewelry-store robbery. Determined to prove his worth in the trade and in his personal life Ronnie applies for a job as a cop pursues a cosmetics salesgirl and tries to solve some crimes using his own unorthodox methods.
WHO’S IN IT?
Tailor-made for the considerable comic talents of Seth Rogen Barnhardt is a funny Travis Bickel a guy with severe self-worth issues who carries on a dialogue with himself in his head. Unlike Paul Blart this is a mall cop out to maul first and ask questions later. Rogen fits the bill and singlehandedly makes it all worth seeing. Anna Faris as his prospective girlfriend is given lots of opportunities to overact — and takes all of them. Still she’s quite funny in a drunken dinner scene that ends with her passed out in the bedroom under Rogen’s huge girth. Ray Liotta pretty much walks through his role as the pro detective who thinks Barnhardt is a total joke. Michael Pena is strong as another security guard while twins John and Matt Yuan and Jesse Plemons are hilarious as their dim-witted mall cop colleagues. Although he only has a couple of scenes Aziz Ansari steals them both as a smart-aleck hanger-on. Celia Weston and Rogen as mother and son have some wonderfully droll moments together but it’s first-time actor Randy Gambill as the flasher who gets the real comic workout and exposes himself as one to watch (hopefully with his clothes back on next time).
A cynical acerbic attitude rules the day here and the idea of putting a real wacko in the mall-cop position has more bite than the PG-13 Blart a movie that was blessed with the likable presence of Kevin James but suffered major credibility lapses.
Writer/director Jody Hill had a great idea but too often goes for the easy joke or gross-out gag when he should have drifted straight into hell with this character and really let Rogen loose. It’s hilarious in parts but the overall tone is wildly uneven and not totally satisfying.
The final confrontation between Rogen and the flasher has to be seen to be believed and on its own more than enough to merit the film’s well-deserved restricted rating.
SHOULD THERE BE A SEQUEL?
Yes and it should pair Blart vs. Barnhardt in a food-court showdown. It could be the best thing since Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla.
She set an extra-terrestrial free, set some houses on fire and set a new trend in Cinderellas. But who knew Drew Barrymore could make people laugh?
The National Association of Theater Owners, apparently. The 24-year-old actress, who starred in last spring's hit comedy "Never Been Kissed," has been named ShoWest 2000 Comedy Star of the Year, the first actress to receive the award.
The actress, who will be honored at the ShoWest convention March 9, is currently working on the oft-discussed, big-screen adaptation of "Charlie's Angels," co-starring Cameron Diaz and Lucy Liu. Now that Drew's a branded funnywoman, does that mean she's taking the Kate Jackson role?
MICHAEL-CATHERINE WEDDING WATCH: After tabloids reported about a possible wedding at the Spanish resort island of Majorca, now comes word that Couple of the Millennium (so far) Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones will likely marry in her native Wales, according to the British weekly magazine Now.
We already know the date: Sept. 25 of this year, when the couple will celebrate their birthday (her 31st, his 56th). The magazine reports the couple will wed at the 200-seat Clyne chapel near Zeta-Jones' hometown of Swansea. Michael's younger brother Eric is quoted as saying, "Catherine wants to please everyone, but it sounds like she's leaning toward a cozy wedding in the town she grew up in."
One concern, he says, is that Zeta-Jones' 84-year-old Granny Zeta would be able to make the trip. But the striking actress doesn't want to insult anyone on Douglas' side, either.
Adds Eric, "Catherine's changed her mind about every 30 minutes since Michael proposed, it's driving her mad trying to decide." And us.
BANNED NO MORE: Chinese director Zhang Yuan, whose work has been acclaimed but long banned by the government, was finally allowed to show his award-winning new movie, "Seventeen Years" in Beijing today.
The film, reportedly based on a true case, is about a 16-year-old who kills her stepsister in a moment of rage, spends 17 years in prison and finally is allowed a brief Lunar New Year visit home, where she confronts the churning but suppressed emotions of her parents. It won the directors' award at the Venice Film Festival.
"It's rather hard to see my films in Beijing. I mean, you can't do it. They didn't pass, so you can only see this one," the director said, adding that he was happy that Chinese audiences could finally see one of his films.
MORE 'BEAUTY': The Las Vegas Film Critics Society named "American Beauty" as best film, but "Boys Don't Cry" grabbed five awards.
The latter film took honors for director Kimberly Peirce, adapted screenplay by Peirce and Andy Bienen, actress Hilary Swank, supporting actress Chloè' Sevigny and most promising actress for Swank.
Kevin Spacey was named best actor for "Beauty," while Haley Joel Osment scored another supporting award for "The Sixth Sense." France's "Autumn Tale" won for best foreign film, "Snow Falling on Cedars" won best cinematography, and "Being John Malkovich" director Spike Jonze won the best newcomer award.
QUICK TAKES: Newsmakers and their friends took time backstage at the American Music Awards to give their two cents. First, Carmen Electra revealed that she and bad-boy ex-hubby Dennis Rodman, to whom she was married for like, two minutes, are considering remarriage. "But right now, I'm taking time off for myself," she said. You might recall that the two were arrested and charged with simple battery after a physical argument.
... Teen pop princess Britney Spears, wearing a jumpsuit with plunging neckline, addressed rampant rumors of a romance between her and Prince William, particularly the bit about their Valentine's date. "I will say we're not meeting on Valentine's Day," Spears said. But have they met? Are they close? She replied, "I don't like to talk about it."
... Rapper/actress/talk-show host Queen Latifah ("The Bone Collector") gave her support for Whitney Houston after the singer's marijuana bust in Hawaii. "Who knows if it was even hers?" Latifah said. "Plus, they've got good stuff in Hawaii!" And she's not talking about the sugar cane, either.