47 Ronin Failed Because It Was Boring

47 RoninI finally got around to watching 47 Ronin last night. There is much to like about it. It is beautiful to look at. The costumes, sets, and cinematography are all first rate. Actually, the whole film is professionally made. And that is mostly a bad thing. It’s all finesse — no inspiration. I know that I’m very much interested in the form of narrative art. But watching this film, I’m sure most people were thinking, “Oh, this is the point in the film where…” The third act action sequence is beautiful to look at, and wonderfully choreographed. But it just lays there on the screen. Did anyone care watching it? I doubt it.

A big part of the problem is just that there isn’t a single interesting character in the film. The closest we come to one is Ko Shibasaki as Mika — the lord’s young daughter who would rather murder her oppressor than kill herself. The film doesn’t even manage to create interesting villains. The main villain is Lord Kira. He is played by Tadanobu Asano — a great Japanese actor. And here, he’s a joke. That can’t be his fault. There is pretty much nothing in the script for him to work with. So director Carl Rinsch must have just told him, “Grin menacingly!”

Similarly, Rinko Kikuchi as Witch seems constantly off. She did have one amazing scene where she manages to be simultaneously sexy and frightening while trying to get Mika to kill herself. Otherwise, her direction seems to have been, “I gave you different colored eyes! What more direction do you need?!” Really. I don’t think I’m overstating this.

All I can think is that Rinsch was only really interested in the technical side of the film. So he gave scant attention to Chris Morgan’s screenplay. You may know Morgan because of his formulaic scripts for the later Fast and Furious films. Apparently, Hossein Amini (The Wings of the Dove) was brought in to fix the script. Clearly, there was not enough time. The screenplay is as weak as can be imagined.

I question the whole idea of making the forty-seven ronin story into yet another film. This time, we get the “twist” of some mythological beings and the half-breed so that Keanu Reeves could star in it. But it is kind of hard to get too excited by the story: a revenge plot followed by mass suicide. Hardly the kind of thing that Americans like. As for the Japanese, they have to be sick to death of this story.

So there are basically two reasons the film didn’t do well at the box office. First, no one is really interested in the story. Second, the film is boring. Last year at this time, Kirsten Acuna of Business Insider tried to explain this much more complicatedly, Why Keanu Reeves’ 47 Ronin Was a Huge Box-Office Bomb. She claimed that it was wrong to release the film over the holidays because there was so much competition. But would that really be a problem if the film had been, you know, good? Then she claimed that its production delays hurt the film. This is typical insider nonsense. Why would the audience care that the film came out a year later than it was scheduled? And then she claimed that it was Keanu Reeves’ fault because, “The last time Reeves’ commanded a huge blockbuster north of $400 million was 2003’s The Matrix: Revolutions.” But people didn’t go to see The Matrix: Revolutions because of Reeves; they went because they wanted to know if The Matrix: Reloaded could be redeemed by the last one. (It wasn’t. And does she really think The Matrix was successful because Reeves was in it?!) What’s more, Reeves has shown himself to be a very good box office draw since that film and even since that article.

Ultimately, technique in any art form only takes you so far. This is why almost no one can get through Finnegans Wake. It doesn’t matter how amazing the technique and how clever Joyce was, the novel really doesn’t have any characters — at least any we can know well enough to care about. In that way, 47 Ronin is the same. It’s a shame too. Because 47 Ronin is obviously a film in which great technical care was taken. But if you want to see a big budget Hollywood take on the genre, you should stick with The Last Samurai. Although really: just rent Ran or Samurai Rebellion.

Why Republican Nomination Circus Is Coming Back

Ben CarsonI guess Ben Carson is serious about running for president. I suspect that it is like more people who run for the Republican presidential nomination: he’s really just trying sell some books and maybe get a Fox News program. But he wants to be taken seriously. That’s why on Thursday, National Journal reported, Ben Carson to the GOP Establishment: I’m Not “Crazy.” It seems that the only reason that people think he’s crazy is because of the mainstream media. You see, they are always looking for gotcha moments. Like when Huffington Post reported, Ben Carson Likens Islamic State to American Patriots’ Willingness to Die for Cause. And why? Just because he, you know, likened ISIS to the founding fathers.

It brings up an interesting question. Why is it that the Republican presidential nomination is such a freak show when the Democratic one is not? I’m not talking about Rick Santorum. He is part of a long and glorious tradition of “issue” candidates. The Democrats have those too. In fact, Howard Dean had intended to be an issue candidate, but his campaign took off. There’s nothing wrong with that. I’m talking about candidates like Herman Cain, Carly Fiorina, and now Ben Carson. You just don’t see major Democratic candidates for president who are comparable. In order to be taken at all seriously as a Democrat, you must have actually, you know, been in government before.

Part of this is just based upon the fact that Republicans have no shame and they will do anything for a buck. The best example of this is Newt Gingrich. He clearly ran for president in 2012 simply to sell whatever it is that he sells. When he managed to win two state primaries, it doubtless came as an unpleasant shock to him. Unlike issue candidates like Santorum, Bachmann, and Paul, I don’t think he was interested in being president. But I don’t think this desire on the part of Republicans — small and mighty — to cash in is the main thing that drives the freak show. I think it is more philosophical than that.

Republicans believe that governance requires no skill. And by and large, when they are in charge, they demonstrate that technically, you really can be the president and not know what you are doing. As I’ve discussed before, political amateur Arnold Schwarzenegger showed that being smart and committed was not enough to properly run the state of California. We needed a professional, and we got one when we elected Jerry Brown.

So who cares that Alan Keyes (2008) or Herman Cain (2012) or Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina (2016) have no actual political experience! The Republican Party don’t need no stinking experience. It probably isn’t a coincidence that all of these candidates are members of under-represented groups in the Republican Party. Since the party doesn’t especially appeal to minorities and women, it doesn’t have “farm teams.” Look at the list of African Americans in the House of Representatives. There are currently two Republicans — and they just got in. If the party isn’t going to vote for you anyway, you might as well run for president.

Even among supposedly real candidates, there isn’t much seriousness on the part of the Republicans. Sarah Palin couldn’t even wait for a full term in office. That still amazes me. I know that she is a fairly stupid, incredibly ignorant, and shallow person. But if you had just been through a very damaging presidential election, wouldn’t you go back to work as governor and try to prove all your detractors wrong? But even Mitt Romney — who actually got the nomination — left the governorship as soon as he could. These are people who are not interested in governing. It reminds me of the end of Primary Colors, when Stanton says:

You know as well as I do, that plenty of people playing this game, they don’t think that way. They’re willing to sell their souls, crawl through sewers, lie to people, divide them, play on their worst fears for nothing! Just for the prize.

Those people who do it just for the prize? They are the Republicans. They don’t value what the president does, but they want to honor of having the job. Get ready for the circus. It’s coming soon to a television near you.

Fox News, “No-Go Zones,” and Apologies

Fox Not NewsAs we all know, Fox News will bring on any kook as long as the kook is willing to say what the conservative network wants to push for the day. So last weekend, they brought on Nolan Peterson. He doesn’t seem especially like a kook, but the nonsense he was spouting was definitely pretty kooky. In the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, Fox News was pushing this idea that France had 741 “no-go zones” where Islamists had de facto control. According to Peterson, these areas are “pretty scary,” which says something because he’s “been to Afghanistan, Iraq.” And at times, he claimed, it felt like those places. He also said that he saw young men wearing Osama bin Laden t-shirts. And then Elisabeth Hasselbeck brought up the ridiculous poll that says that one in six French people support ISIS. Peterson said that this too was “scary.” Peterson is apparently a very frightened guy.

For the record, these supposed “no-go zones” are zones urbaines sensibles. This translates to “sensitive urban zones.” They are what we would call “urban renewal zones” or “opportunity zones.” They are, in other words, poorer areas that the government is trying to improve economically. And many of them are clearly seeing much gentrification. But in the conservative mind, poor person and terrorist are pretty much the same anyway.

The whole thing blew up in the face of Fox News. This is especially true after the French television program Le Petit Journal made fun of the whole thing. (For the video, see News Corpse.) Fox News displayed a map of the “no-go zones” in France. So, in a brilliant bit of satire, Le Petit Journal sent to people into these areas dressed like stormtroopers with motorcycle helmets. The areas — Surprise! — are very nice — even trendy. And the French people interviewed seemed to think that the comparison of their neighborhoods for Afghanistan and Iraq as pretty funny. Vive la France!

This morning, Fox News issued a apology of sorts. For the record, I think the whole “apology” and “retraction” and “update” business is a joke. A newspaper prints an above the fold story, “Obama Is Secret Terrorist.” And then, the next day, at the very bottom of page 16, they print, “Yesterday, we incorrectly claimed that Obama is a secret terrorist. We apologize for this error.” But in the case of Fox News, it is rarely even that good. In the following correction, there is no context and the apology is razor thin. The viewer is left with the idea that the only thing wrong with the story is that some of the areas labeled were wrong:

We want to tell you that last Saturday we showed a map of neighborhoods in France labeled as no-go zones. Some of the neighborhoods were highlighted incorrectly. We apologize for the error.

Earlier this week, Nolan Peterson wrote an article on Blue Force Tracker, To the People of France. It is not so much an apology as an apologia. But in its way, it is even worse than what Fox News did. In it, he explained that he wasn’t talking about these areas as they normally were, but rather as they were “during the 2005 riots.” But he never said anything about riots during the Fox News segment. In fact, he didn’t even provide any caveats like, “When I was there, I saw…” He was very clear: these 741 “no-go zones” were areas where Islamic extremists are able to recruit with impunity. There was no lack of clarity; he knew what Fox News want to hear and he said it.


I don’t know the details of what he thinks should be done, but Nolan Peterson has a liberal attitude about how Muslims have been marginalized in French society. He seemed very eager to talk about this, but Elisabeth Hasselbeck was not interested.

Update (19 January 2015)

Wow. Fox News put out an actual correction:

Economics, Elections, and Oligarchy

Brian BeutlerOver at New Republic yesterday, Brian Beutler made an important but obvious point, If the Midterms Were Held Today, Gas Prices Might Have Saved the Democrats’ Skin. He even provided a nifty graph that shows that as gas prices have gone down, Obama’s approval rating has gone up. Now we all know that correlation is not causation. What’s more, in off-year elections, economic conditions are not well correlated with how people vote. (I suspect that it is correlated with how people would vote if they did vote.) But there is no denying that if the election were held today, the Democrats would do a lot better because of the way the economy has improved over the last two and a half months.

This is sad. As Beutler noted, “That’s a sobering reflection of the capricious nature of politics…” But surely it doesn’t come as a surprise to him. This is the way that our politics always works. This is the reason that the Republican Party has been able to to move to the far right without paying much of a political price for it. It has, after all, abandoned basic competence for a commitment to ideology. And as I hammer away all the time here, we know that it will be able to win the White House in 2016 as long as the economic conditions turn bad. In the simplest of terms: if gas prices go way up in a year and a half, Scott Walker could be our next president.

Of course, it isn’t specifically about gas prices. We’ve been seeing reasonable job growth for about a year now. It is only recently that people have noticed it. I am not saying, however, that Obama and the Democrats should get credit for the improving economy. But given that the electorate blamed the Democrats for the bad economy before, they should credit the Democrats now. And I’m sure they do. Beutler is right: if the election were held today, the Democrats would do much better.

It’s hard not to take this conclusion and throw your hands up, “It’s impossible!” Indeed, it is pretty much random. But the positive side of it is that it frees the Democratic Party in terms of ideology. Many Democrats are afraid that if Elizabeth Warren runs for president, we will lose because she’s too liberal; instead, we must run Hillary Clinton. But in a general election, it will make almost no difference. If the economy is booming in the first three quarters of 2016, we win; if it isn’t, we lose. So we Democrats ought to nominate the person we most like and not the person who we think is most “electable.”

Beyond this, the economic effects on voting patterns is very troubling. It basically means that we live in an oligarchy. The person most important to who becomes the next president is the chair of the Federal Reserve. If she wanted to, Janet Yellen could sabotage the Democrats in 2016 by raising interest rates and tanking the economy. It’s interesting that Paul Volcker did just that to Jimmy Carter — which is what Carter wanted him to do. It was a selfless act on Carter’s part. But what people remember about Carter was that he was a hopeless president, and all the credit due him goes to Ronald Reagan, who actually hurt the economy.

This is American politics. And if you aren’t terrified, you aren’t paying attention.

Andy Kaufman

Andy KaufmanOn this day in 1949, the great comedian Andy Kaufman was born. Oh, how I miss him! I’m all for people like Jon Stewart or Louis CK or even Dylan Moran — all very funny men. But Kaufman was a genius — the first truly postmodern comedian. Last year, I compared him to Albert Brooks. And indeed, there really is a lot about Brooks that is postmodern — for example, his ventriloquist act. Kaufman was the the whole thing. He was that rarest of things in stand-up comedy: an artist.

Sadly, most people didn’t get his act while he was alive. I think they just thought that he was silly and cute — especially as the foreign man character. But people never really got Tony Clifton or the Hollywood elitist wrestling villain. I don’t know if Kaufman just didn’t care or was simply too much of an artist to tip his hand. But it still seems strange to me that everyone would know that professional wrestling was “fake” and yet think that he was really having a feud with Jerry Lawler. It was all straight out of Roland Barthes’s essay, The World of Wrestling.

Check out this clip. It is from the documentary, I’m from Hollywood. It shows one of Kaufman’s taunting videos — unfortunately, intercut with reactions of people. What’s so brilliant about it is that it is simultaneously offensive and hilarious. And it isn’t clear exactly what level the comedy is on. It can be seen as lampooning what northerners and westerners think of the south. Just the same, it can be seen as lampooning what southerners think northerners and westerners think of them. It’s brilliant:

Given the extremely varied nature of his work, his Carnegie Hall performance stands as the ultimate tribute to him, because it shows how he was able to pull it all together. This is not the greatest copy of it, but it is still worth watching:

Happy birthday Andy Kaufman!