How I Rate a Film: Yojimbo Edition

YojimboI 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.”

Do You Have a VCR?! Of Course I Do!

Do You Have a VCR?! Of Course I Have a VCR!

I was at the library the other day picking up a VHS copy of 1955 British comedy The Ladykillers. I had seen the 2004 Coen Brothers film, which I thought was just fine. It was savaged by the critics, however. And I noticed something about it: most of the complaints were more about it not being as “Whatever!” (each critic had their own thing) that the original had. So I thought it would be interesting to write something about the two films. But when I picked it up, the librarian asked, “Do you have a VCR?!”

I’m sure this is a common occurrence. The library catalog is not that clear. It’s happened to me too: coming into the library thinking I’m going to pick up a DVD and finding that it’s a VHS. But it’s never been that big a deal because I do have a VCR. And for very good reason: a lot of great movies have never been released on DVD. In some cases, it’s shocking. As I write this, The Amazing Colossal Man is not available on DVD in the United States. (There is a Portuguese double feature DVD O Incrível Homem Colossal and A Volta do Homem Colossal. But I assume it is a DVD-R, as it comes only from one seller and is $42.99.) If you want it, you can get it on VHS for $56.99 new (or $19.99 and up, used).

If You Love Film, You Need a VCR

Even when little known films are released on DVD, they are often no better than they were on VHS. They rarely have any extras, and often aren’t letterboxed.

This is hardly the only film in this category. I’ve been waiting for decades for Medicine River to be released on DVD. It’s a very funny film starring Graham Greene and Tom Jackson. It’s the kind of film that you love and then feel that you absolutely must share it with your parents. There are few films that fall into that category! And that makes its absence on DVD all the more remarkable. It is available on VHS right now for $69.99 new and $47.96 used.

Over the past several years, I’ve noticed a number of films finally make it to DVD. One Trick Pony took until 2009 to find its way to DVD. And there are many more, but I don’t know them off the top of my head. But the truth is that some films will never make it to DVD. And it seems strange, because it is very cheap to release a film on DVD-R. It’s just a question whoever has the rights doing it.

Not Even VHS

There are, of course, lots of films that your VCR will never help you with because the films were never seen as worthy of release on VHS. Now, just because something isn’t on VHS doesn’t mean it won’t be on DVD. As I noted, it’s cheaper to put something out on DVD than VHS. Indeed, Death Bed: The Bed That Eats was never released on VHS. This may have something to do with its mastermind, George Barry. (For more on the film, see our page Death Bed: The Bed That Eats.)

To give you an example of how crazy this all this, consider the great sculptor Fredric Hobbs. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, he made four feature films. His first two, Troika (1969) and Roseland (1970), have never been released in any form that I know of. So your VCR won’t help you there.

His next film, Alabama’s Ghost (1972), has been released on VHS. Although strangely, there is currently only one copy for sale at Amazon, and the description states, “**DVDR DISC WITH NO ART** super rare movie. I bought this at a convention quality is a 7ish out of 10 looks like a vhs tape.” I assume that someone somewhere made an illegal DVD-R copy. So even though this film is on VHS, it seems incredibly rare in that form.

His last film, Godmonster of Indian Flats (1973), is available on DVD. It looks like it was once available on VHS, but I can’t find it for sale anywhere.


The takeaway from all of this is that you really have to hang on to your VCR. A lot of films will never be released on DVD. And even when little known films are released on DVD, they are often no better than they were on VHS. In many cases, they simply transferred from VHS. They rarely have any extras, and often aren’t letterboxed. So hang on to your VCR. You won’t need it a lot. And as time goes on, you should need it less. But you will need it.

The Good and Bad of Mystery Science Theater 3000

Mystery Science Theater 3000 - Crow T RobotI’ve been a fan of Mystery Science Theater 3000 since its Joel Hodgson days. But there has always been a love-hate aspect to it. On the one hand, it introduced people to a lot of great psychotronic films. In fact, Trace Beaulieu (Crow, Dr Clayton Forrester) has even admitted that Michael Weldon’s classic The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film was the group’s bible. Just the same, I don’t think they quite understood what people were supposed to take away from the book: the films were weird, not bad — or at least not necessarily bad.

Not a Lot of Jokes

But in that same inverview, Beaulieu goes on to say that Josh Weinstein really wants to do a riff of Life Is Beautiful. Beaulieu then says, “I’d never seen it before so I decided to watch it, and you know what? He was right! I was stunned! It’s terrible, and there’s so much to make fun of.” Is that what the riffing was all about? Making fun the bad in the movies? I don’t think so. In fact, the show was kind of pretentious in making “jokes” that were nothing more than obscure references.

(A good example of this is in the Werewolf episode. A one point this old man shows up with a really long beard and one of them says, “Leland Sklar, survivalist.” The entire joke was that the guy looked vague like Sklar, who is a bass player, known especially for playing with James Taylor. But as a session player, he’s played with an amazing list of people. But it’s only music freaks who know who he is. When I heard the line, I felt impressed with myself that I got it. But I hardly laughed.)

Mystery Science Theater 3000 Riffs on Bad Films?

Anyway, as we’ve seen with RiffTrax, The Mystery Science Theater 3000 treatment can be applied to any movie at all. But I don’t even know what Beaulieu means when he says “bad” anyway. Here’s an extended quote:

I do like bad movies. I have a fondness for them, and right now I’m finding that I love Netflix because they’ve got so many bad movies for streaming. Netflix right now is sort of like that bad VHS store every neighborhood used to have. You’ve watched all the good stuff so you find yourself going through the back catalog of a lot of people’s so-called careers. In fact I just watched Solar Crises. It’s an early ’90s forgotten sci-fi movie. And it’s kind of epic. It stars Charlton Heston, Tim Matheson, Jack Palance… and it’s stunningly bad. The special effects are awesome, but the movie… it’s got a great pedigree. But my poodle has a great pedigree and it still craps everywhere…

The Show Itself Wasn’t Well Made

But I do think that there was a lot of confusion about the films by the crew. If any group should appreciate movies done quickly on a shoestring, it should be the people making Mystery Science Theater 3000. For one thing, they are stealing most of what they do. Their own set design was not all that good. And the fact that they had an excuse for it doesn’t matter. They weren’t capable of doing any better. (Note how much better their film looks — with lots of professional studio help — even though it’s some of their weakest work.)

What’s more, their hosted segments were generally terrible. They made no effort at character consistency. And despite that, they were only rarely able to create comedy of a high level. What’s more, Michael Nelson’s extreme right-wing politics found their way into the show, like when Crow’s newspaper column gives Antonin Scalia a grade of B+. Could they have picked a more polarizing figure? It passes by because most people watching the show don’t pay attention to politics. But really!

It all works because it’s charming. But in purely technical terms — if you take into account resources — there was almost no film they featured that wasn’t better than they were. And their first season (KTMA) are far more enjoyable than the later episodes on The Sci-Fi Channel.

Kurt Vonnegut

And then there is The Mystery Science Theater 3000 Amazing Colossal Episode Guide. I ordered the book with great anticipation. The book is terrible. There’s almost no inside information. There are season introductions which have nothing interesting to say. And even though the book was produced just after Joel left the show, he isn’t in the book. He should have at least been brought in to write a substantial introduction. It’s possible that couldn’t be done. I suspect that the break-up of the show was far more acrimonious than anyone wants to admit in public.

The one good thing about the book is that Kevin Murphy tells the story of meeting Kurt Vonnegut. On their first encounter, it takes a while for Vonnegut to place the show. Finally he gets it:

Why, yeah, he’d seen the silhouette while channel-surfing. Yeah, we were the guys with the old bad sci-fi films and such. Then he said that we should try to appreciate the fact that many of those writers were struggling and turned out scripts for those movies virtually overnight.

When I read that, I thought, “He gets it!” I already had a high opinion of Vonnegut, but that was really nice to hear.

The Second Conversation

Later, Murphy tries to get Vonnegut to go out to dinner with the group. Here is Murphy’s memory of the conversation they had:

“I’m Kevin Murphy. I met you yesterday.”
“Oh, sure, with the shadows. You were up for an Ace Award…”
“Yeah. My partners and I were wondering if you’d like to have dinner tonight…”
“It’s really difficult to get good fiction on television, isn’t it?”
“Boy, yeah. Now, if you’re not busy tonight…”
“…Those old movies, some were mighty laughable…”
“Exactly. If you and your wife…”
“…I’m here with the Showtime people, you know…”
“…We could eat right here…”
“…They have this thing I’m supposed to do…”
“…We’d be flattered if you could…”
“I’m sorry, I’m afraid I don’t have the time.”
“Well, thank you all the same, it’s been a pleasure meeting…”
“Mm-hmm. Say, did you win an award last night?”
“Um, no, we lost.”
“We won.”

It turned out that Vonnegut didn’t have anything to do. He just didn’t want to have dinner with them. But in the second encounter, you can tell that he’s still processing. He clearly thinks that what Mystery Science Theater 3000 is doing is wrong.

But notice where he ends: he points out that he won and they lost. I don’t think Murphy got the significance of that. Vonnegut wasn’t saying that he was better and they were worse. He was making a broader statement about taste and what is considered good and what is considered bad.

My Experience

Over the years, what I found was that I liked any given episode more or less based on how good the film was. I often found myself getting annoyed that these guys were talking while I was trying to watch a film. I remember that specifically with Devil Doll, which is a damned good movie. Another was the excellent Phase IV, although in those early local television days, they all talked a good deal less. But I’ve always found it necessary to assume the best from the crew in order to enjoy the show.

Regardless, I have to give Mystery Science Theater 3000 credit for introducing a lot of people to a lot of great old psychotronic films. Whether or not their intent was to mock the films, they did them a great favor. And I think a lot of people who enjoy laughing at these films are just covering. They actually like them. It just isn’t hip to like them as enjoyable works of art. So they laugh. And that’s fine.