Tuesday, 9 September 2014

They wanted to show me that this life has nothing to offer but death.

47 Ronin
(2013)

(SPOILERS) 47 Ronin was pronounced D.O.A. well before it actually bombed at the box office. It’s rare for critics to push against the tide and come out in support of such fare, invariably because the warning signs of a troubled production tend to be an accurate yardstick for the quality of the finished movie. And so, 47 Ronin was dutifully slaughtered. I’d be hard-pressed to present the case that the picture is an unsung classic, a masterpiece waiting to be re-discovered and re-appraised, but it has certainly been given short shrift. As many column inches have gone into reviewing its insane budget as the picture itself. There is much to enjoy in this beautifully rendered, unusually solemn fantasy and its surprisingly reverent exploration of the themes of honour and revenge. It’s easy to admire the strange beast Universal threw their weight behind; a Japan-set Samurai tale featuring a single Hollywood star (who, at best, sporadically vies for lead protagonist duties) and a downbeat plot that only intermittently engages in the enormous action spectacle the title promises. If 47 Ronin doesn’t quite fly as a hugely expensive art film, it is nevertheless very far from your average blockbuster.


Given the rope afforded the movie (much of which was second-guessed down the production line, leading to turmoil and delays), one wonders that Universal didn’t go the whole hog and screen the picture in subtitled Japanese. It couldn’t have done worse at the box office, and it might even have garnered some cachet, along the lines of Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and Apocalypto. Reeves has said scenes were shot in Japanese first to familiarise the cast (it didn’t help much; their English is mostly starchy, although this broken formality isn’t completely at odds with the mood of the piece), but I doubt the studio will be stumping up for a different cut; not after the hit they took.


47 Ronin is just the latest of half a dozen pictures based on the 18th century historical account. As such one might expect less resistance to it manoeuvring from the straight and narrow of the original tale, even when it goes as far as embracing the magical trappings found here. After all, there remains embedded within the picture an air of veneration for place and time and culture. Yet the response in Japan was underwhelming, it seems because of perceived irreverence towards the material and the common complaint of indiscriminate Hollywoodisation. Which is entirely understandable, and legitimate, but isn’t automatically evidence of artistic failure (The Last Samurai, a lumpen tale of the white man showing the natives what honour is really all about through being the greatest warrior evah, was a huge hit in Japan but remains emblematic of the dubious white saviour trope).


In set up at least, Chris Morgan (the Fast and Furious franchise, so not the greatest harbinger of resonant story telling; his original script was big on the Black List, although that’s no indicator of anything either) and Hossein Amini (brought in for rewrites; despite some impressive credits as the main adaptor, he has a patchy record script doctoring the likes of Snow White and the Huntsman) don’t stray too far from the original. Shogun Tsunayoshi (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) sentences Lord Asano (Min Tanaka) to fall by suicide for attacking visiting Lord Kira (Tadanobu Asano exemplifying grinning one-note villainy, not that he has many dramatic options). The Shogun forbids Asano’s main counsellor Oishi (Hiroyuki Sanada, an increasingly familiar presence in the US with appearances in Lost, The Wolverine and, yes, The Last Samurai), from taking revenge and pronounces him and his men Ronin, masterless Samurai. Oishi orders his men to take no action, recognising “If we fight now we die” and that the repercussions for all those within Asano’s lands will be terrible. Kira is granted Asano’s realm, and his daughter Mika’s (Ko Shibasaki) hand in marriage, the latter to take place following a year’s mourning, in order to bind the peace. Kira duly throw Oishi down a pit, releasing him just prior to the nuptials (it’s unclear why Kira would let him go at all, less still allow him to live, given how shamelessly monstrous he is). Chastened by his failure and bent on revenge for his master’s death, Oishi sets out to gather his Ronin for this task.


Loosely, very loosely, that conforms to the classic story. But Keanu has also been impressed upon this template, and with him Asano’s daughter Mika. Kai’s addition is bound to the picture’s supernatural element too; Kira achieves his objectives through Mizuki (Rinko Kikuchi of Babel and Pacific Rim; she’s having as much of a ball being bad as Asano, but to much better effect), a shape-shifting witch who sabotages events (she casts a spell on Asano’s champion) and induces Asano to attack Kira by conjuring a vision of Kira raping Mika (in the original, Asano loses his cool after being continually provoked by Kira). Kai and Mizuki are therefore equal and opposite invented forces, the conceits of a major studio with dreams of a fantasy film goldmine. The introductory passage suggests a greater complement of Keanu than is ultimately delivered; having “fled evil” Kai is taken in by Asano. He grows up a lower class citizen, derided for his half-Japanese half-English heredity (that Keanu, eh; who’d have thought it?); we are also privy to the burgeoning love between Kai and Mika, of your classic mismatched romance variety (“I’ve always loved you but you have your place and I have mine”).


In these scenes, Keanu is set up as the man apart, subject to revulsion from his peers (“I’d rather have been killed by that beast than saved by a half-breed” spits Masayoshi Haneda’s Yasuno, after Keanu saves him; of course, he will later proclaim his indebtedness and how wrong he was) but with an insight into dangers that others ignore (in particular, Oishi rejects his warnings of witchcraft, instead accusing him of being a demon). When Kai tries to do the honourable thing (taking the place of the champion in the duel) he is sentenced to death by the Shogun and only saved through the intervention of Mizuki. So Kai suffers for his nobility, nobility that puts the genuine Samurai to shame. This looks like it is paving the way the for your classic white saviour figure but, while it’s undeniable that Keanu gets all the coolest “Jedi” type moments, anyone hoping for a Neo-redux will be disappointed. In terms of screen presence he’s more your Morpheus.


The rejection of the half-breed has more than a whiff of western holier-than-thou, on the outside looking in, but it is well placed as a subversion of unconsidered mores and codes. The picture otherwise nurses an uncritical and stoic devotion to (barmy) paths of honour. It is, because that’s the way it is. Oishi explicitly shoulders the hero’s arc, not Kai; he must atone for his mistakes, make things right. His error, as Kai impresses upon him when he is released from slavery (although it looks very much as if he could release himself anytime he wishes), is not listening to his warnings, which is rather different from the historical account.


One of the criticisms of Oishi in the original story is that he spends more than two years in preparation, not wholly in keeping with the warrior’s code. 47 Ronin deals with this dealt with deftly and succinctly by giving Oishi no choice in the matter; he is imprisoned. An additional question mark hangs over the act of revenge itself; the tale has been argued to best symbolise loyalty rather than bushido (the samurai code of honour) per se, as revenge is not necessarily considered an appropriate motivation for the samurai (much as George Lucas had misgivings over the implications of the original title for Episode VI).


Despite there being 47, only two Ronin are presented with any flesh on their bones, and one of those (Kai) isn’t even a Ronin. Maybe the writers should just have added the 4 and 7 together for a more manageable number, although Peter Jackson has recently been unable to surmount the difficulties of distinguishing a baker’s dozen of dwarves. The only others of note are the aforementioned Yasuno, Chikara (Jin Akinishi, as Oishi’s son, released from suicide at the climax in order to continue the bloodline; let’s hope he has a high sperm count) and fatty Ronin (there’s always one) Basho (Takato Yonemoto).


Any failings of character apply across the board, however; these figures are little more than silhouettes, imbued with poses rather than depths of emotion. Oishi, as the leader, is granted the symbolic slaying of Lord Kira, and his motivation holds the only real weight, but the really memorable stuff goes to Keanu. There’s the fight with a giant at the sort of merchant port one might expect to meet Captain Jack. Later, Kai swiftly dispenses with a handful of Kira’s men while the other Ronin look on agape. Elsewhere there is a little more balance, but Oisihi’s thematically important moments still cannot compete with Kia’s cool moves, The need for weaponry leads the assembled warriors to Kai’s old haunt of the Tengu Forest (“You will find swords in the Sea of Trees”), where Kai must face the Tengu Master (voiced by Togo Igawa) who trained him. It’s an expertly staged and edited sequence, where Kai is called upon to use the magical powers he foreswore while Oishi is required (Luke in the Dagobah tree-like) to resist drawing his sword even when beset by visions of his men dying. So too, the climax. Oishi delivers the showdown with Kira, but Kai gets the more expansive and satisfying fight with Mizuki.


Keanu is looking as uncannily young as ever, despite having just turned 50. Okay, this started filming way back in 2011, but it’s tempting to think he and Johnny Depp must be attending the same Fountain of Youth. Perhaps, like Kai, he has an occult past. I’m a fan of Reeves, although it would be ludicrous to suggest he hasn’t been dreadfully miscast on more than one occasion. Here he is a good fit, despite the obvious point about him not being remotely Japanese; all containment, reserve, respectfulness and typically inscrutable expressions. The love story packs no punch, but that also fits the subdued emotional tone; I may be arguing too strongly for flaws as merits, but it would be misplaced to have the romance any more foregrounded. Reportedly, the reshoots that occurred a year after the picture wrapped boosted Reeves’ presence through close-ups and an added love scene; these elements don’t feel especially intrusive although a parting shot like “I will search for you through a 1,000 worlds and 10,000 lifetimes until I find you” would only pack any weight if we really cared about their doomed love (it’s hardly, “Stay alive! I will find you!”, but then the dialogue across the board is singularly unmemorable) Notably, Mika’s suggestion that “All that we can ask is that we leave having loved and been loved” is exactly not what this band’s code of honour would hold dear.


The script, by some lengths the least of the picture’s qualities, follows a straightforward linear through line of banishment, escape, gathering, arming and retribution (there’s a flashback or two, too; you’ve got to explain Keanu, right?) With a coda of tragedy/honorific sacrifice on top. Who knows what the original cut looked like (or if there was one), although the struggles with Universal, which may or may not have seen debutant Carl Rinsch locked out of the editing room, don’t transparently display the lasting scars that, say, the similarly fractious big budget initiation of a young David Fincher left on Alien 3. I compare the two as Rinsch was attached to what became Prometheus for a while.  Whether that would have been less thorny to make is debatable, but it seems clear many wanted to cash in on the promise of The Gift (alternatively, the attention Rinsch got when he was attached to the Alien prequel may have piqued Universal’s interest). 


It’s a dicey game studios never tire of, throwing a huge amount of money at a filmmaker who has never tested themselves on such a scale before. Then, of course, the suits have the temerity to demand changes when things don’t quite pan out as envisaged. In this case, and arguably with Alien 3 too, the studio got behind inherently anti-commercial material, at least in an obvious sense, almost as if they were throwing money away wilfully. Perhaps they saw great potential at the Japanese box office, but envisaging this as something akin to Lord of the Rings was only ever pie in the sky. There were reports Rinsch favoured the content becoming ever more Japanese, while the studio was of the reverse inclination (in their defence, if that was his intent, he was very silly to shoot in English at all). And it was their follow-the-herd stupidity, insisting on 3D, which caused the price to hit the stratosphere.


There are occasional confusions in the edit, albeit not in the action sequences themselves, as if a vital coverage has been lost and with it the geographical sense of interacting characters. This is particularly noticeable when Kai suddenly arrives to save Yasuno from the rampaging creature; until he’s in the scene you have no idea where he is in relation to it. Elsewhere, the unlikely conclusion drawn by the enemy that a few corpses signal the end of the Ronin beggars belief (this might simply be laid at the scriptwriters’ door, however). The inclusion of the Blu-ray’s deleted scenes in the finished cut might also have helped clarify some of the issues; Oishi’s sudden arrival at the port to release Kai has an instructive introduction, and there’s an excellent excised sequence where Mika attempts to poison Lord Kira. 


Her character is so under-served that the pruning feels even more injudicious; given the picture ducks just under two hours, the scissors were probably out for anything tangential to the main thrust with an eye on maximum cinema screenings per day.  Stuart Baird’s credit as editor, something of a renowned fix it man (and not such a great director) was surely an area in which Rinsch had no say. There are still other signs of a messy rethink by the studio; the voiceover introducing and ending the picture is a patronising mistake. That it’s courtesy of ADR man Ron Bottitta, rather than an illustrious Shakespearean type, is a sure indication that it resulted from studio nerves. The joke is that meddling of this sort almost never results in improvements, less still in financial success. In such cases the sensible response is surely to cut your losses rather than throw more cash down the khazi.


Visually, however, Rinsch, in tandem with cinematographer John Mathieson, has created a thing of beauty no amount of tampering can spoil. This is a richly textured piece, filled with deep, vivid colours, and one that uses the widescreen frame to its full luxuriant potential. Rinsch (or maybe Baird) doesn’t become distracted with frenzied editing, and the action is punctual and precise, deliberately not drawing scenes out beyond the point of coherence and patience. There’s also so much dry ice (or its modern equivalent) wafting about (I like dry ice!), you’d think Ridley made this in the mid-‘80s (rather than the auto-filter and whip crack editing of Scott’s last decade or two). Ilian Eshkeri’s score is effective enough, but not singularly memorable.


For a picture this costly, the CGI is noticeably variable. The fabulous creatures and non-humans are never less than absent looking, lacking physicality. On the other hand, everything about the rendering of Mizuki’s (and Kai’s) powers works beautifully. Her fox alter-ego, gravity resisting hair, matching the snake tendrils of the Medusa, floating across the ceiling of Asano’s room (Variety reported Mizuki was a later addition, but she’s easily one of the best aspects of the picture). Overall, the effects work complements Rinsch’s images, but they are unable to match his consistently sumptuous results.



It would be easy enough to fixate on the deficiencies with 47 Ronin; the characterisation; the failure to invest the quest with sufficient zeal and urgency; the demands made of a cast unaccustomed to English speaking; the derision-demanding presence of Keanu. And yet, what is attempted here, the measured tone and the reserve, very nearly work, pulled along by the immaculate design, staging and intent. A good indicator of the picture’s merits is that such a humour free exercise doesn’t invite mockery; rather there is respect for what it strives for and doesn’t quite achieve. Rinsch has produced a strange, unusual, offbeat visual feast, one that is distinctive and elaborate, filled with ornate imagery that exceeds the perfunctory nature of the script. Like last year’s Oblivion, this is more visual masterpiece than out-and-out marvel. But sometimes that’s enough. I don’t doubt Rinsch will make films in years to come that more than match his stylistic abilities.

***1/2


It’s like spring break for adults.

The Way Way Back
(2013)

Steve Carrell was on the money when he said the quality that attracted to him in The Way Way Back was similar to the one he saw in Little Miss Sunshine. Both are immensely likeable feel-good indie movies, strong on quirky characterisation and relatable insights but also equipped with a slightly superficial fantasy uplift element in their depiction of protagonists overcoming trials and tribulations. This kind of fare follows something of an indie dramedy template and The Way Way Back is well observed, unintrusively directed and populated by some wonderful performances. But it’s also a wee-bit over-recognisable.


Co-writer-directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash have successful dual careers as comedy performers, and their writing partnership stems from performing together at comedy club The Groundlings.  The script for The Way Way Back had been kicking around since the mid ‘00s, but only finally went into production following the kudos and Oscar they received for adapting The Descendants with Alexander Payne. Payne is hard to beat with this kind of laugh/cry material, although he hasn’t really tapped the coming of age tale (that’s not really Election). Perhaps he knows how difficult it is to make a distinct mark on such stories; it would be easy to shower The Way Way Back with plaudits, yet it still feels like just another entry in a well-worn genre, complete with a summer park hearkening back to more louche ‘80s movies (tellingly, it was originally set in 1984). And Adventureland (although The Way Way Back is way better).


Duncan (Liam James) is an inexpressive and reserved teenager required to attend a Cape Cod summer break with his mother (Toni Collette), her boyfriend Trent (Steve Carrell) and Trent’s daughter Steph (Zoe Levin).  He would much rather spend time with his dad, but is instead stuck with an a prick of a patriarchal figure (Carrell on sterling unsympathetic form) and a not-sister who can barely tolerate the sight of him (and who heaps abuse on him when in the company of her friends). Mum Pam is sympathetic, but she’s trying to fit into Trent’s world and with his loud and uncouth friends (Allison Janney as sousy gossip Bettty, Rob Corddry and Amand Peet as couple Kip and Joan). During the trip to there, he’s also had to content with Trent informing him he is a “3” on a scale of 1 to 10, which pretty much tells us all we need to know about Trent.


It’s a bleak set up, and we can feel Duncan’s desire to just want to crawl under a rock and die, beset by inherent adolescent awkwardness and quite awful adult company. James excels at tongue-tied discomfort, which means the movie doesn’t have to rely solely on the more experienced supporting performers to carry it. Eventually Duncan carves out his own niche and comfort zone, when the manager of the local water park Owen (Sam Rockwell, exuding charisma levels on a part with the average Sam Rockwell performance) takes him under his wing. Invited into this company (which includes Faxon and Rash who are both effortlessly funny, particularly Rash as the balding and beleaguered lost property guy, and Maya Rudolph as Caitlyn, Owen’s possibly maybe). There is also Betty’s daughter Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb, currently in Sex and the City prequel The Carrie Diaries, but who has been giving note perfect performances ever since Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), the older girl willing to given Duncan the time of day and on whom he develops a crush.


As such, this strays into fantasy territory unfamiliar to the typical introverted teenager; the coolest, most outgoing guy (Owen) in town for some reason takes to you; the more mature girl actually has time for you (most unlikely of all is her “You just surprised me” when she recounts why she recoiled from his attempts to kiss her); it’s wish-fulfilment confectionary with an indie tag, and recognisable names flock to it as it offers a bit of character meat and substance in contrast to the big budget bill-payers. The Way Way Back is warm-hearted and breezy, but it’s also quite shameless in milking its audience (just like Oscar darling Little Miss Sunshine; this, as essentially a teen angst movie, was unlikely to reach the same level of exposure).


Carrell, Rockwell and Janney have the showiest roles, and they just need to be wound up and let loose (I was surprised to hear Rockwell say this kind of spontaneity doesn’t come naturally, as it’s the way I typically imagine him from his roles; he also said he was channelling Bill Murray in Meatballs). Carrell in particular, can’t be underpraised for essaying an unreconstituted prick.  Corddry and Peet don’t get much to do other than behave coarsely, Rudolph is at her most sympathetically lovable, while River Alexander, as Betty’s other offspring Peter, is sure to win a rash of exhuberant child parts on the back of this (the sequence in which Owen admires Peter’s eye patch is a particularly rich exchange, where Alexander actually manages to wrest the focus from Rockwell).


The Way Way Back was a Sundance hit, snapped up by Fox Searchlight and went on to be the biggest commercial success of the screenings there that year. It’s funny, touching and shrewdly calculated; Faxon and Rash could probably ease full time into writing-directing on the back of it, should they so wish (next up is The Heart with Kristen Wiig), but I don’t think there’s much danger of them doing so exclusively given their natural yen for performance.


***1/2



This ain’t no damn videogame.

Ride Along
(2014)

I’ve been blissfully ignorant of the steady rise to stardom of Kevin Hart (although I have seen Meet Dave, if that counts), but on the evidence of Ride Along his hyperactive banter, with a winning strain of self-deprecation, needs to find significantly better material if he’s to endure. Although in the US, with the box office tally of this movie, you’d be sure he had already arrived. As ever, comedy is Hollywood’s thorniest international export, and it made negligible outroads internationally (a meagre 12% of the total gross). Discussing takings at the start of a review is a sure sign of shortcomings and Ride Along’s biggest is that it’s bereft of inspiration, essentially refitting The Hard Way in a tepid and perfunctory manner.


The pairing of Michael J. Fox and James Woods in that movie was inspired, a choice that naturally elevated the material; you could see the contempt oozing from Woods’ every pore, and Fox (even more diminutive than Hart) has always been game to send himself up. Hart and Ice Cube, as high school security guard Ben Barber who dreams of joining the force and hardened police detective James Payton respectively, have a reasonably edgy chemistry. Payton doesn’t want to know about the mosquito buzzing in his ear, and is set on doing everything he can to dissuade him from becoming a police officer, particularly since Ben is dating his sister (Tika Sumpter). Cube is a an okay straight man (there’s no point testing his very limited range), and works well bouncing abuse off Hart, but he flounders in pretty much any “proper” acting scene. Likewise Hart, who bears a surprising resemblance to Fred Ward from some angles, goes off on some half decent riffs, but when a scene calls for serious interaction it becomes clear he’s playing as if he’s the only man in the room, a common failing of the stand-up writ large.


The plot is collection of formulaic set pieces, familiar to anyone with a passing knowledge of mismatched buddies (not even cops) movies; one (uptight, serious) starts out hating the other (a fantasist) but gradually, through the course of their time together, learns he has good qualities and thaws accordingly. Meanwhile, the dreamer proves himself (even possibly that he is a real man after all); The Hard Way commendably eschewed this.  Woods still hated Fox at the end. Here, Payton wants to bring down some Serbian arms dealers and their boss and, of course, Barber ends up providing him with unlikely help.


The picture is at its negligible finest during Hart’s showboating moments; confronting a biker gang over a disabled parking space, visiting a gun range, dealing with a crazy guy at the supermarket. And the old standards of mistaken circumstances and impersonation that serve him best. Accompanying Payton to a bar for what he assumes is another 126 (annoying calls used to put rookies through their paces), Barber believes a genuinely dangerous scenario to be make-believe.  Likewise, his impersonation of Omar (“I though Omar was 6’ 4”?”).  It’s a scenario that’s been seen played out many times before, and done much better, but its mildly diverting.


Cube had etched himself out a regular spot in Januarys in the US, amassing a serious of successes that far exceeded their modest budgets, but this had tapered off of late; Ride Along is a shot in the arm for him. The best I can say is he does good reaction shots, angry or bewildered, mostly to Hart’s antics, and even has a fourth wall moment when Ben, behaving as if a warehouse shootout is a video game, goes searching for ammo on the floor and finds it; James looks disbelievingly into camera.


If there’s anything of thematic note to discuss about this movie, it’s the presentation of the fantasy escape world of video games as equal and worthy in to “real life” experiences (you know, the ones where Ice Cube exists as a cop); Ben’s knowledge, derived from Taliban crushing computer games, repeatedly comes in handy, against all odds and probabilities, leading to vital clues and leads. And rousingly, Ben’s game nerd buddies (“Thank you, Assface”) rally to help our heroes in the third act. Is this an attempt to swing the scales back in favour of the raging geeks? It’s a curiously valedictory message to send out, that sitting in front of a screen playing games all day is valuable and equips one for interaction with the great outside more than we would guess.


On the support side, I doubt any of the players are here for the love of the art. John Leguizamo can’t afford to be picky, while Bruce McGill and Laurence Fishburne always bring something to not necessarily very good material. Tim Story directed this; the guy Fox let shit all over The Fantastic Four not once, but twice (but hey, looking at the bottom line, which was Fox’s only criteria, it made sense; the kind of sense that got John Moore aboard Die Hard 5). Story’s got his second unit doing overtime again, which is to say this is barely directed. It’s a collection of shots stapled together. Right from the pace-deflating music that punctures the engaging opening title design its clear this will be a botch job. There’s no reason a comedy vehicle can’t have a good director, although it’s also the case that they rarely tarnish the reputation of bad ones; the Rush Hours made even Ratner look competent. I’m sure Story will ensure Ride Along 2 is every bit as scintillating as the first.


**