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Are star-ratings necessary?

Posted by Ty Burr  May 19, 2010 11:52 AM

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Whenever I get a reader gripe about the number of stars I have (or haven't) given a movie, I think of that old Zen saw about how the hand pointing at the moon simply ain't the moon. Then I send them on to Movie Review Intelligence, a website that is to movie ratings what Sabermetrics are to baseball batting averages: Glorious, statistics-crazy overkill.

There are other rating-aggregate sites out there: Rotten Tomatoes is the one everyone knows about and it re-mulches each print and online critic's rating (stars, grades, little man, whatever) into a purely on/off proposition: red tomato good, splatty green tomato bad. I prefer another site, Metacritic.com, for a number of reasons: The 1 to 100 scale is literally 50 times more fine-grained than at Rotten Tomatoes, and the editors stick with the major newspaper/magazine/online reviewers, thus weeding out some real talents but also critics whose names it's impossible for me to take seriously. (I say this as someone who at least came by his own silly name honestly, having it foisted upon me in infancy.)

Movie Review Intelligence busts the entire rating-ology concept wide open. I have to make a confession: MRI founder David Gross and I worked together many, many years ago in the research department of HBO (it was my first job out of college, crunching and analyzing Nielsen ratings for movies), and while I have long since buried my inner R-squared-loving geek in the psychological basement, David has now come out of the closet with his. And good for him.

MRI collects all the major reviews and ratings for a movie and slices them into infinite pieces of pie. The site's page for "Robin Hood," for instance, assigns a 55.1% aggregate rating (out of 100 possible points overall), then breaks that number down among Broad National Press (56.2%), Local Newspapers (60.7%), Alternative/Indie (63.9%), Highbrow Press (35.0%), Movie Industry (43.5%), and major, semi-major, and mini-major urban markets.

The approach has its flaws (because Peter Travers in Rolling Stone hasn't been "alternative" in at least two decades, he skews the average for that category) but also yields the kind of wonky, borderline useless insights stat-freaks love. The "review mixture" scattergram -- a scattergram! -- for "Clash of the Titans" indicates that critics in smaller cities were more positive than those in mid-size cities. The "review timing" bar graph for "Date Night" shows that reviews that came out on the film's opening day were more positive than those that ran earlier.

What does this mean? To quote Pee-wee Herman, "I don't KNOW!" But I'm really glad someone's doing it and that's he's got an iPhone app to boot. For one thing, it takes the pressure off me when people bitch that I gave "Robin Hood" three stars rather than two and a half. (Sue me, it was two and three-quarters; I like to grade upwards.) But that's only part of it.

I do understand the reasons people like visual ratings on movie reviews. Really, I do. We're all pressed for time and unless you're a slavering movie fanatic or a member of our immediate families (not even then, actually), you're not going to slog through all six to ten of Wesley's and my Friday reviews from top to bottom. You want the skinny and you want it fast.

And, too, we're a goal-oriented society, and we crave knowing what's worth it and what's not. The weekend box office is perceived as a competitive race with clear-cut winners and losers, and star ratings are the Olympic judges holding up numbers. Cut the crap, go to the videotape: Is it two stars or three and a half? Should I pay attention or move on?

And yet, every so often, I'm reminded of why readers' reliance on the ratings leave me a little depressed. Some weeks back, I reviewed a re-release of the 1950 Kurosawa warhorse "Rashomon" and gave it three and a half stars. A reader wrote in with as huffy a tone as ASCII text allows; his gist, genteelly stated, was that I had some nerve giving one of the classics of world cinema anything lower than the full four. It has had an agreed-upon rating for decades, thanks, so why bother assigning a new one?

I wrote back saying that, as far as I was concerned, the rating reflected the standing of "Rashomon" vis-à-vis Kurosawa's career peaks like "The Seven Samurai," that it's a movie that wears its philosophizing fairly baldly and even more so 60 years after it came out, that art, or the perception of it, does change with time and context. That, when all is said and done, it's an opinion, one couched in helpful information and hopefully readable prose.

But that's still putting more weight on the stars than I do myself. I've previously written at length about critical ratings systems and the methods by which I parcel out the starrage on a weekly working basis, and I've warned that readers focus on them at their loss as well-rounded moviegoers. As cultural filters go, the stars are absurdly blunt instruments. They have nothing of value to say about which audience a movie might be best for and in fact assume that all movies want to appeal to all audiences.

But they don't. A few months ago I met a lovely elderly couple who assured me they only went to movies to which I'd given three and a half or four stars. Needless to say, this had blown up in their faces more than a few times: "Borat," for one; "I'm Not There" for another. Whereas other, less starry movies might have spoken to them more clearly and meaningfully than they did to me, a point I often try to make in the body of a review but which by default can't be reflected in a two or three star rating. They might have preferred "Cheri," say, or "The Duchess," or, who knows, "Shortbus."

Another flaw in the star ratings is that they can't signal when a movie has parts that work and parts that don't. The other week I gave the Annette Bening/Naomi Watts drama "Mother and Child" two and a half stars, not because I felt lukewarm about the movie but because what cruises along beautifully for 80 minutes falls prey to overwriting in the last act -- too many coincidences until you just have to cry uncle. Or I did; as always, your mileage may vary. But the rating won't tell you that, since it's a nine-point scale (if you count halves and zeroes) that most readers interpret as binary: yes or no, good or bad. You very well might love "Mother and Child" -- I wanted to. But first you have to consider it as more than a rating.

As a critic -- and, admittedly, not every critic does this -- I try to let the audience that might best appreciate a movie at least know it's out there, even while discussing where it might have fallen short within my purview. But you won't get that from glancing at the dingbats, and that's a disservice to you. A further case in point: "The Art of the Steal," the documentary about the Barnes Foundation that is woefully partisan yet great for starting arguments about who owns art and what their duty to the public might be. As a work of persuasion it's flawed; as provocation, it's inspired. Two and a half from me and that didn't keep it from running for weeks at the Coolidge, which is just as it should be.

In general, though, does Wesley or I giving less than three and a half stars doom a movie -- specifically, the kind of off-studio non-blockbuster that depends on reviews for survival? More than I'd care to admit, and the fault lies in part with you, dear readers, as you perform pop triage and try to figure out what to see and what not to see on a Friday night. This drives at least one studio executive I know absolutely crazy, and after a three-and-a-half star review runs he has been known to email me sarcastically ask if I "couldn't squeeze another half-star" out of my pen.

I understand where he's coming from, even as I'm helpless to do otherwise. (Do you really want me giving more stars to a movie I didn't much like just because I still think it should be seen by one audience or another?) With fewer and fewer arthouses still standing and with all the movies that get pushed through that narrowing window, it's pretty much four stars or death. Because anything less is unimportant to you, anything less is useless to the studio executive who wants to sell his movie, to which I have to say "tough" but also "sorry, the people you want to talk to are over there skimming the paper online."

I sometimes wonder: What would happen if we just trash-canned the things and went the way of the Times and the Journal? Would you read more of the review or none of it? Do you really need the suckers, and, if so, why? I get it: Opinion's cheap in the modern world and the sell had better be quick. To request nuanced attention of a reader -- regularly, five times every Friday -- is almost an affront when we spend most of our days wading thigh-deep through e-mails and pop-up ads. But what happens if by ignoring a three-star rating you miss the movie that changes your life?*

The Movie Review Intelligence website takes the exact opposite approach: It fans the star rating out into an infinitude of statistical slices and hopes for meaning and guidance to emerge. It's a fascinating place to surf through, but I suspect it still misses the point. What draws an audience to any piece of culture, pop or otherwise, isn't dingbats but words: words of enthusiasm or sometimes even just words of qualified recommendation. If you rest your pop intake solely on what the ratings say is the best, you risk missing far too much of what's simply good.

*(What, you don't think a movie can change your life? I encountered a reader recently who told me that my three-star review of "Mad Hot Ballroom" still got him to go see the film. Because he saw the film, he was inspired to start his own ballroom dancing classes for inner-city school children, a program that is now in its fifth year of success. That film didn't just change his life but the lives of dozens and dozens of other people. Was I glad to have indirectly helped bring that about? What do you think?)

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Ty Burr is a film critic with The Boston Globe.

Mark Feeney is an arts writer for The Boston Globe.

Janice Page is movies editor for The Boston Globe.

Tom Russo is a regular correspondent for the Movies section and writes a weekly column on DVD releases.

Katie McLeod is Boston.com's features editor.

Rachel Raczka is a producer for Lifestyle and Arts & Entertainment at Boston.com.

Emily Wright is an Arts & Entertainment producer for Boston.com.

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