Movie Review ~ 47 Ronin

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The Facts
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Synopsis: A band of samurai set out to avenge the death and dishonor of their master at the hands of a ruthless shogun.

Stars: Keanu Reeves, Hiroyuki Sanada, Ko Shibasaki, Tadanobu Asano, Rinko Kikuchi

Director: Carl Rinsch

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 119 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: There’s nothing film critics will get behind quite like a big-budget bomb and it appears that 47 Ronin just made the grade in the final days of 2013, effectively wiping out memories of The Lone Ranger, the other expensive movie that tanked earlier this summer.  Here’s a little secret I’m going to let you in on though…it’s not anywhere near as bad as some fuddy duddy national critics would have you believe it is (neither, for that matter, was The Lone Ranger) but it’s also not the grand spectacle Universal Studios thought they were getting.

Arriving amid rumors of a troubled production phase, 47 Ronin could probably be called the Cutthroat Island of samurai films.  That is to say that like the infamous 1995 pirate epic that bankrupted its studio, it’s possessing huge production values thanks to a whopping budget but probably was never destined to be a movie that made all that cash back.  It does have one thing that Cutthroat Island didn’t have though; a plot drawn from Japanese folklore that provides more than enough excuse to go big or go home and 47 Ronin goes big.

Now it should be said that this is far from a perfect film.  Because it’s set up like a folktale, the filmmakers push the limits of reasonability to bring to life the story of the masterless samurai (called ronin) that seek to reclaim their land by avenging the death of their master.  Adding in lizard faced demons, ghosts of the undead, sinewy dragons, shape-shifting witches, and several beasts that can’t be classified,  screenwriters Chris Morgan (Fast & Furious 6), Hossein Amini (Snow White & the Huntsman), and Walter Hamada (a producer on The Conjuring) can’t be faulted for stuffing their take on the tale to the brim.

Where the film goes astray is the very fact that it’s a Hollywood film to begin with.  Though the legend has been put on screen seven times before, this is the first time that a major Hollywood studio has made a go of putting their stamp on the Japanese myth.  That’s like if a Russian production company made a film version of Johnny Appleseed…there’s something lost in translation that the film can’t recover from.

It always felt strange to me that a largely all Japanese cast was speaking English, probably so star Keanu Reeves (Parenthood) wouldn’t stick out further in his role as a foundling of mysterious origin taken in and raised with the samurai but never truly being part of them.  No disrespect meant to these Japanese actors but had the film been subtitled, it may have allowed these actors to dig deeper in their roles and not come off (as they often did) as simply reciting their lines phonetically.

Though I couldn’t stand her in July’s Pacific Rim, Rinko Kikuchi fares much better here as she slinks through the film as a villainous witch that changes appearance at will.  As an advisor to a rival kingdom’s leader she has a Lady Macbeth quality that’s lip smacking good without ever resorting to camp.  There’s also fine work from Hiroyuki Sanada (The Wolverine) as the head samurai teamed up with Reeves and the lovely Ko Shibasaki as the requisite lovely princess in distress.

Even with a veteran editor (Stuart Baird) on board, it was probably not the best idea for Universal to place this property in the hands of a first time director.  With the emphasis on sumptuous costumes and large scale set-pieces, it’s actually hard to see where Carl Rinsch fit in as the director in the first place.  I think the movie could be trimmed by a good ten minutes but there are enough distractions for the eyes to keep you from checking your watch too much.  You can skip seeing the movie in 3D as it’s probably the least effective use of the medium in 2013.

This is one you’ll have to see and make-up your mind for yourself.  Maybe it’s because I read such scathing reviews for 47 Ronin before I saw it that the bar was set so low that it was destined to exceed those expectations…or maybe it’s just because the movie isn’t that bad to begin with and we’re just dealing with critics at the end of their 2013 good will toward men.  It’s not a film I’ll likely revisit but I wouldn’t chuck it in the trash heap if a copy found its way into my collection.

The Silver Bullet ~ 47 Ronin

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Synopsis: A band of samurai set out to avenge the death and dishonor of their master at the hands of a ruthless shogun.

Release Date:  December 25, 2013

Thoughts: There’s something about the preview for 47 Ronin that makes me think of those salad days in the late 80’s/early 90’s when you couldn’t throw a samurai sword in a video store and not hit a martial arts film starring any number of thick necked action heroes.  Keanu Reeves (Parenthood) has his share of detractors but as blank as he may appear to be, I can tell the guy has an appreciation for filmmaking and seems to enjoy selecting unexpected roles.  This isn’t the first time the Japanese folktale that anchors the film has been put on screen but it is the first time that Hollywood has taken a stab at it.  It looks kinda schlocky, pretty fun, and something that will require a big tub of popcorn to really enjoy. 

Movie Review ~ Pacific Rim

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The Facts:

Synopsis: As a war between humankind and monstrous sea creatures wages on, a former pilot and a trainee are paired up to drive a seemingly obsolete special weapon in a desperate effort to save the world from the apocalypse.

Stars: Charlie Hunnam, Idris Elba, Rinko Kikuchi, Charlie Day, Ron Perlman, Robert Kazinsky, Max Martini, Clifton Collins, Jr., Burn Gorman, Larry Joe Campbell, Brad William Henke, Diego Klattenhoff

Director: Guillermo del Toro

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 132 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: So here’s a movie that had the potential to be a lot better than what it turned out to be. Director Guillermo del Toro has demonstrated over the course of his career that he’s a filmmaker truly interested in the heartbeat of a film.  Though his works have always been visually arresting and skillfully created (hello Pan’s Labyrinth, Cronos, and both Hellboy movies), he’s not afraid to take the time to let the underneath of it all show through.

Pacific Rim gets the trusted del Toro formula half right with some of the most impressively eye-popping visual effects you’re likely to see in theaters now.  Add to that a production design that is realistic but not overly fussy and you have a movie that would be a slam-dunk…if you watched it on mute.  The problem with Pacific Rim is that it has no heart, no brains, and leaves the viewer feeling as hollow as the mighty mechanical titans that are created to fight creatures from the depths of the ocean.

Credit should be given to screenwriters del Toro and Travis Beacham for devising a clever spin on the earth vs aliens formula that has been revisited by pictures big and small for over half a century.  The lengthy prologue of Pacific Rim brings us up to speed on the last decade of war that broke out when a seismic shift in the middle of the ocean unleashed terrifying creatures that go on to wreak havoc around the world.  Huge in size, our modern weapons were no match for their power so the world leaders created jaegers, battle bots that could stand tall enough to look these monsters in the eye and taken them down with a vast array of weaponry.

How these are operated from within by two humans is best explained by the film itself (it’s kinda a bunch of hooey) but soon these jaeger pilots are seen as rock stars until the creatures begin to adapt and render the program nearly obsolete after a tragedy calls into question their effectiveness.  Flashing forward several years, the program is re-started when a substantial threat of major invasion is predicted.

Idea-wise, the film is a winner.  Even writing about it here I had a small rush of excitement because it sounds like there is so much that a talented director like del Toro can do with it.  And del Toro delivers the visuals with awesome results.  The battle sequences (especially when viewed in IMAX 3D) are nearly overwhelming in their scope, size, and bravura.  Even though much of these sequences take place at night and in the rain you’ll be able to follow each powerful battle royale between machine and monster.

Unfortunately, the dialogue that strings these passages together and most of the  plot developments are bargain basement material with little to no surprise about what’s going to happen next.  Even a post credits scene is one you’ll be able to see coming if you are familiar with del Toro and his favorite actor to use (no spoilers here!)

It’s also a shockingly bad film for acting.  Let’s start with the best of the middling performances.  Idris Elba (Prometheus) is a solid actor tasked weak material.  I’m still waiting for Elba to be given the kind of role that will rocket him to the fame that he has the talent for.  As the jaeger program director he has little to do but growl when questioned and deliver a sound byte ready inspirational speech near the end that feels like a revised version of the what Bill Pullman rambled on about in Independence Day.

The rest of the international cast is a hodge podge that run the gamut from bland to sour.  You simply couldn’t ask for a more vanilla leading man than Charlie Hunnam, an actor with zero going on behind his eyes.  Paired with Rinko Kikuchi (a far cry from her Oscar nominated turn in Babel) the two are asked to create chemistry that not even the folks at MIT could assist in creating.  Both actors provide some truly embarrassing performances and you have to wonder what on earth del Toro saw in them to cast them as the leads in such an important studio picture.  As arguing scientists, Charlie Day (who comes off like the love child of Bobcat Goldthwait and Rick Moranis) and Burn Gorman seem like they’ve time traveled out of a sci-fi spoof of this film from the future.

Lousy performances aside, this is one film that will be best enjoyed in a theater when you can be totally immersed in the world that del Toro has created.  I can’t say the movie will work as well for home viewing so if you can overlook the disappointingly ordinary execution of a smart set-up and nearly an entire cast of poor performances you should try this one out when it gets to your bargain cinema.