This might seem an odd choice of film to be the first review posted on this  blog. But it was genuinely the first film I saw in 2014, and my thoughts about it (or rather the reaction to it) rather neatly chime in with what I hope the ethos of Celluloid Optimist will be about.

47 Ronin was one of the worst-reviewed films of 2013, but (as is often the case) is nowhere near as bad as mainstream critics would have you believe. Granted, it has its problems – tonally schizophrenic and laden with the problematic choice of making a classic Japanese story all about the struggles of the white man – though there are simply too many genuinely interesting things going on in it to warrant the bile it has received. Anyway, as you can pretty much guess what you’re in for from the film’s trailer, I’m going to spend more time talking about its critical reception rather than the film itself.

Often, when bad buzz starts to build around a film (as happened here after it flopped spectacularly in its strongly-targeted demographic of Japan), the film critic establishment seems to scent blood, and a perfectly watchable (though obviously flawed) film gets hauled over the coals. Other 2013 victims of this odd and unfortunate phenomenon include Safe Haven, The Lone Ranger (one of Quentin Tarantino’s top ten films of the year), Homefront and Dead Man Down – none of which are going to be bothering the Academy Awards but all of which have plenty of admirable things in them, and even one or two moments of brilliance, yet were given one-star reviews pretty much across the board.

The reasons behind this demonstrate much of what’s wrong with modern mainstream film criticism. The brilliant British film critic Kim Newman (who wrote one of its few genuinely fair reviews) once told me that there’s nothing easier for a film critic than to write what’s known in the industry as “knocking copy” – that is, being almost ridiculously over-the-top in your negative criticism. It gives critics (many of whom are frustrated writers themselves) a chance to be acidic and cutting, which makes them sound witty and makes for a good quote. This, combined with the general reluctance of most film critics to stick their heads above the parapet of the overall critical consensus, is what leads to unfortunate rushes for blood toward films that barely deserve it.

So as the first “review” of this blog, I think it’s worth touching on all these points. Slagging off a film just for the sake of it, or in an attempt to sound pithy, or because one feels one should – none of these things interest me. I know from first-hand experience how difficult it is to even get one single thing right when making a feature film; even to get a film completed and distributed and showing in cinemas all around the world is something of a monumental achievement. I’m more interested in talking about where a film succeeds that where it fails. If you want snide put-downs, look elsewhere – the internet is hardly in short supply.

Watch 47 Ronin if you’re interested in fascinating failures. It doesn’t gel at all, but there’s something quite beautiful in that – it’s an American film shot in Hungary and the UK, with an entirely Japanese cast plus Keanu Reeves, and both a historically-accurate attention to detail and a ridiculously garish fantasy element to it. Its imagery and overall style is like some kind of cross-cultural milkshake, with so many disparate elements that you end up liking as much stuff as you loathe. As a side note, the story this is all based on – the Chushingura myth – is part of the Japanese cultural bedrock, as familiar as the King Arthur stories in the UK for example, and makes for fascinating further reading. It’s been adapted for all kinds of different storytelling mediums in Japan many times before – including film – though I’m ashamed to admit I’ve never seen any.

If only Kurosawa had tackled it.

 

47 RONIN
Race-Based Privilege1
Tonal Consistency1
The Japanese Cast8
Treatment of a Fascinating Mythology7
Fuck Snobbery10
Bechdel Test Passes
  • Features more than two named female characters
  • The female characters talk to each other
Bechdel Test Failures
  • They only talk about men
5Overall Score

2 Responses

  1. Angie

    Your first Blog seemed in depth however the film is not our cup of tea.But saying that
    we were impressed by your indepth analysis and candor and will be reading your blogs on films that appeal to us. Lastly well done and keep it up very good idea.

    Reply
    • celluloidoptimist

      Cheers Angie – glad you like the site, I will now try and get it up to date!

      Reply

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