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Thumbs down on movie rating system

Critics don't have time to reassess older films, while today's sophisticated audiences may scoff at films from yesteryear.

November 27, 2010|By David Freed, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Ricardo Montalban, left, and Esther Williams star in the movie, "Neptune's Daughter."
Ricardo Montalban, left, and Esther Williams star in the movie, "Neptune's… (TCM )

Say you're in the mood to watch an old movie you've never seen, let alone heard of — in this case, "Neptune's Daughter," a 1949 musical comedy featuring bathing beauty Esther Williams playing opposite buffoonish Red Skelton.

According to your cable television provider's channel guide, "Neptune's Daughter" rates three stars on a four-star scale. Given that ringing endorsement, you settle in on the sofa with every intention of enjoying the movie — until you'd rather watch anything but one more amusingly cheesy minute of "Neptune's Daughter."

You conclude that if "Neptune's Daughter" rates three stars — the same ranking your channel guide has assigned to other, more recent comedies, among them "Roxanne," "Something's Gotta Give" and "The Incredibles" — there is no justice in this world.

Chalk up such subjective disparities, film critics say, to the constantly shifting tastes of American movie audiences.

Indeed, while an innocent romp like "Neptune's Daughter" may well have rated three stars when it hit theaters 61 years ago, members of today's more jaded, world-weary audiences might argue that it deserves fewer. The problem is that those three original stars are virtually cast in stone; critics say they don't have time to reassess every older movie and revise accordingly the number of stars they think a particular film may deserve in the context of society's ever-evolving sensibilities.

"Times do change and tastes change with them," says film critic and historian Leonard Maltin. "This is the peril of revisiting older movies. It's like revisiting a friend you haven't seen in years. Maybe that kid you found so amusing in high school is not so funny these days."

Conversely, Maltin says, some older movies taken for granted back in the day deserve more stars today than they received initially because of their enduring, or newfound, popularity among movie fans.

"Film noir, hard-boiled melodrama, wasn't given a tremendous amount of respect in its day," Maltin says, "but it's popular now because it's cynical. It suits today's audiences."

Maltin's annually updated and highly regarded "Movie Guide" includes more than 17,000 of Maltin's capsulated movie reviews, each of which are rated on a four-star scale. He rarely revises those star ratings, Maltin says, not only because he's too busy reviewing newly released movies, but because he doesn't want to be accused of "glibly flip-flopping."

Debate rages among critics over the validity of the star-rating system itself. Most critics who use it employ a four-star scale. Generally speaking, four stars means that the movie is sublime, three connotes good and two indicates fair. A one-star movie suggests that your evening might be better spent rearranging the closet. Other critics award five or even six stars to what they consider the best films. Some add half-stars to the mix, some use thumbs (up or down), some rely on academic-type letter grades. ( The Los Angeles Times does not use a star-rating system for movies).

It's all enough to give the average movie fan a headache.

Chicago Tribune film critic Michael Phillips, who, like Maltin, uses the four-star ranking system, dismisses it nonetheless as "ridiculous, but useful as shorthand." Any moviegoer who wants to know what a critic really thinks of a movie, Phillips says, should read that critic's full review.

However, people watching old movies on television typically do not have access to full reviews, unless they have the ability and are so inclined to read them online. They are left instead to rely on the brief descriptions and corresponding star rankings that appear on their channel guides.

Those rankings and mini-reviews are not typically generated by cable providers themselves but rather from vendors like Tribune Media Services (TMS), a division of Tribune Co., parent company of The Times. TMS provides content for on-screen programming guides used by Cox Communications, Direct TV, Dish, and Time Warner Cable, among others, and can be seen in all 50 states, as well as worldwide.

How does TMS determine which movies deserve how many stars?

As scientifically as possible, says Jodie J. Russo, TMS' executive director of content operations.

"Our movie editors," Russo says, "seek out a variety of critical review sources that range from online sites that aggregate industry-known critic reviews, specialty sites that focus on certain genres, and then site industry trade sources such as Variety."

All of those sources are then collectively considered to generate what Russo calls "an educated rating." While viewers might argue that some ratings are widely off the mark (see "Neptune's Daughter"), the fact is, the number of stars any given movie receives is merely opinion and, as such, always subject to debate, Russo says.

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