How I Rate a Film: Yojimbo Edition

I don’t believe in rating systems. There’s a reason that we don’t use “stars” or whatever on this site. Eventually, I’ll write an article about it. But I do find such systems useful under certain circumstances. For example, Netflix uses the system and it does work well to estimate how much I’ll like a film.

Note that in this case, the rating is for what I like; it isn’t some kind of statement about the film is. When Leonard Maltin gives a film a certain number of stars, he isn’t making a claim about his preferences; he’s making a claim about the film. (This is one of many reasons why film “critics” suck.)

Obviously, if you are going to try to quantify the quality of a film, the larger number of “stars,” the better. I am glad that Netflix uses a five-star rating system rather than a four-star system. It is probably because of the very many films that I think deserve 4 stars; somehow, 3 out of 4 stars doesn’t seem quite high enough, when 4 out of 5 does. This is despite the fact that the numbers are almost identical: 75 percent versus 80 percent.

I almost never give a film a rating of 2 stars, and I can’t remember ever rating a film as 1 star. To do so would reflect badly on me, I think. The filmmaker spent at least a year working on the film and I spent perhaps two hours. If I think it is really bad, isn’t it more likely that I just don’t get it? Even a film as sophomoric as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Undead is still worth at least 3 stars. And perhaps more, because the film really doesn’t pretend to be anything it isn’t. Would I have rewritten it? Sure. Could it have been so much better for me? Absolutely. Would doing so have reduced its potential audience by 90 percent? Probably.

Yojimbo and Its Remakes

One of the greatest films ever made is Yojimbo. It tells the story of a ronin who saves a town by setting its two controlling gangs against each other. This may sound familiar because it’s been made at least twice since then in the form of A Fist Full of Dollars and Last Man Standing. And I can think of no three films that better illustrate the difference between 3, 4, and 5 star ratings. Just so you know what I’m talking about, I rate them thusly:

*** Last Man Standing
**** A Fistful of Dollars
***** Yojimbo

All of these films are good. I’ve watched them all many times. But why is Yojimbo better than A Fistful of Dollars and Last Man Standing? There are a few reasons. First, on its storytelling merits, it is better. It is funnier and more exciting. But that in itself wouldn’t cause me to put it into the 5-star category. Yojimbo is also at base a serious film with real characters.

This is not true of the other two film, which are at base comic books. Joe[1] and Rojo in A Fistful of Dollars are superheroes. All the characters are stereotypes. The same thing goes for Last Man Standing. The argument can be made that Sanjuro[2] is a superhero. I don’t think it is very strong, but it doesn’t matter. The people who occupy the town are very real, and the film is mostly about them.

The final thing that makes Yojimbo great is that it is beautifully shot. A Fistful of Dollars really falls down here. In particular, I am thinking of the day-for-night graveyard sequence. Last Man Standing, on the other hand is easily as beautiful as Yojimbo. This is one of the best things about it.

A Fistful of Dollars vs Last Man Standing

So why is A Fistful of Dollars better than Last Man Standing? One reason: Bruce Willis. I don’t generally mind Willis as an actor. In particular, he was excellent in the great film 12 Monkeys. But here, his performance is bad enough to almost destroy this film. Otherwise, I would likely rate Last Man Standing the better of the two.

Beyond the Numbers

I still don’t know what it is that distinguishes a good (4 star) from a great (5 star) film. I’m much more likely to give a film five stars when its intent is serious (and that has nothing to do with it being a drama; I think comedies more often have serious intents). But His Girl Friday is nothing more than a romp, and it is clearly a five-star film.

That’s why I think writing about film is a useful thing to do. It’s helpful to discuss a film — things to watch for; things that didn’t work; how one film relates to another; and so on. But to slap a number on a film is to reduce the film to a single thing. And even the very worst film is so much more than that. That’s why on our film pages, we have multiple articles. It’s easy for the same person to write ten different articles on the same film. Rare is the film that gets an entire book written about it, but I don’t think a film exists that an entire book could not be written about.

The Hidden Complexity

Still, everyone has opinions about films. They like some films better than others. What’s more, their tastes change from day to day. And Netflix does provide a good service in being able to take into account what people who have tastes similar to yours. So there is nothing wrong with rating films. And if you do, it’s probably a good idea to know why you rate different films differently. Behind ever number is an enormously complicated calculation that none of us is fully aware of.

[1] Note: he has a name. He is not “The Man With No Name.” The fact that people know him by this moniker is indicative of the mythic nature of the character.

[2] I believe that Sanjuro means “30-year-old” based upon the translations in Yojimbo and the almost equally wonderful Sanjuro. I highly recommend The Criterion Collection double DVD Yojimbo & Sanjuro. It’s great to have them together. Sanjuro is the name of the character. So the first film can be thought of as, “Sanjuro Goes to the Country.” And the second film would be, “Sanjuro Goes to Town.”

Image taken from Wikipedia. Licensed under Fair Use. This article was originally published 20 April 2012 on Frankly Curious.

4 replies on “How I Rate a Film: Yojimbo Edition”

  1. has an interesting attitude about reviews, based on how likely a movie is to appeal to specific genre fans:

    A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre.

    B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. In order to rate at least a B-, a film should be both a critical and commercial success. Exceptions: (1) We will occasionally rate a film B- with good popular acceptance and bad reviews, if we believe the critics have severely underrated a film. (2) We may also assign a B- or better to a well-reviewed film which did not do well at the box office if we feel that the fault lay in the marketing of the film, and that the film might have been a hit if people had known about it. (Like, for example, The Waterdance.)

    C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by people who enjoy this kind of movie. If this is your kind of movie, a C+ and an A are indistinguishable to you.

    C means it is competent, but unspectacular genre fare. People who like this kind of movie will think it satisfactory. Others probably will not.

    C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie, but genre addicts find it watchable. Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film, but films with this rating should be approached with caution by mainstream audiences, who may find them incompetent or repulsive or both. If this is NOT your kind of movie, a C- and an E are indistinguishable to you.

    D means you’ll hate it even if you like the genre. We don’t score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-. Any film rated D+ or worse is recommended for just about nobody. In order to rate that low, a film would have to be a critical failure, and be generally rejected by both mainstream and genre audiences.

    E means that you’ll probably hate it even if you love the genre. Films rated E have been almost completely rejected by reviewers, mainstream audiences, and even the people who normally like such movies.

    F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

    G means that the film is not only unappealing and technically inept, but also features Jeff Fahey.

    • The part about Jeff Fahey is funny, but really, doesn’t Adam Sandler deserve that a lot more? Lawnmower Man is a great film!

      I’ve seen this approach to ratings before. The Rolling Stone book of record reviews makes pretty much the same point, saying that a 3-star record is one that will appeal to pretty much anyone who likes that genre of music. It has problems, though. For one thing, it is presumptuous. It’s really hard for people who are film (or music or whatever) freaks (as the person who wrote that clearly is) to know what people are going to like.

      I remember a film book my mother had that had effectively a 4-star rating system (a block or 1, 2, or 3 stars). Almost every film got a block. What that meant was that it was a standard film with nothing especially notable about it. And it made that judgment in the context of the time when the film was released. Clearly, these were ratings for cinephiles. He was not trying to judge whether someone would like the film but whether there was something in the film that was worthy of note.

      My problem with film ratings is that they don’t really tell the reader much. This block plus 3-star rating system is good if you want to study film from a traditional perspective. But I think my acceptance of ratings really crumbled when I used to write reviews on Netflix. I would write a positive review and give the film 3 stars and people would give me a thumb’s down. I think they read my review (they were so short); they were just reacting to the fact that I had given 3 stars to something that they really liked. If only my review had been there, they probably would have liked it, because I liked the film. But there’s a strong tendency for people who like a film to be unsatisfied when the film isn’t given a top rating. If you love a film and Roger Ebert “only” gave it 3.5/4 stars, it sucks.

      But I understand. People would like to come to this website and see that I gave Robot Monster five stars (and I would) and know that they had found a kindred spirit. But I don’t do that. And how would I deal with a film like Death Bed? I fully admit that the majority of the film is hard to get through. Yet it is filled with some much that is delightful that it’s worth watching.

      Ultimately, I want to say that film is art. You don’t give stars to the Mona Lisa. Also, since this whole website is a reaction to people claiming to rate films, it would be hard to do the same thing here.

      • Lawnmower Man? Oh, my. Well I only saw it once, so maybe I’m missing something. But you liked Johnny Mnemonic, which is also part of the Virtual Reality is the LSD of the 1990’s cannon. I thought Last Man Standing was odd for taking a Western and swapping out gangsters for cowboys, but then filming it on the set for a Western. Totally agree that 12 Monkeys is excellent. But my favorite Bruce Willis movie is The Fifth Element.

        • Last Man Standing is a very close remake (explicitly) of Jojimbo. And that film is about two groups of gangsters. So it makes a lot of sense.

          I’ve only seen The Fifth Element once and I didn’t like it. But I’ll bet I would now! Johnny Mnemonic is hardly a great film. But it has much to offer. And it’s a lot better than the short story. Lawnmower Man is like “Flowers for Algernon” but with a happy ending.

          What I’ve realized is that as time has gone on, I just like the weird and wonderful.

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