Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Falling stars

This is one column that you will definitely want to read, at least if you want to avoid being confused by the stars that follow the movie titles at the top of each of my capsule movie reviews.

One piece of feedback that I get from time to time is that I give too many films a three-star rating. On the face of it, this criticism is justified. I did a quick analysis of my ratings over the 1,008 feature-length films I had reviewed as of the end of last month. Here is how they tallied:

5 stars = 0.69%
4 stars = 24.8%
3 stars = 63.29%
2 stars = 9.23%
1 star = 1.88%
0 stars = 0.1%

Yes, there is a definite tendency toward the three-star rating. I have always defended this by trying to explain that I am not actually grading films in terms of quality. (See my ratings explanation page.) The stars are only there (and grudgingly at that) as a guide as to whether I think the reader is likely to want to see the movie. Three stars mean that I figure a good few people out there will like the movie—especially people who have made a conscious decision to see the movie in question. If, after reading my comments, the reader finds it interesting, then my prediction is that the reader will have an okay time watching the movie. Four stars means that I think there is a high probability that most people will like the movie and, anyway, it is one of my personal favorites. Five stars means that the movie is very special, a classic, and gets my highest recommendation.

One or two stars indicate degrees of badness. The distinction between them is apparently not very important because I don’t give either rating very often. One movie, the wretched Highway of Heartache, actually got no stars, meaning that there are really three degrees of badness that rarely get used.

This analysis is enlightening in that it illustrates why I seem to be too easy as a film reviewer. I’m obviously using too many stars, so the stars have less value than they should. My web page is suffering from star inflation. As Alan Greenspan himself might suggest (if anybody could understand what he was saying), the proper course of action is a steady and sober dose of deflationary pressures.

That’s right. With the magic of computer software search-and-replace features, I am going to drop one star from every rating. With one fell swoop, I am going from being an easy reviewer to being a tough one. In other words, my highest rating will now be four stars. This will be the highest number any film can aspire to. Three stars will be for very good movies that are highly recommended. Two stars will denote movies that are up to the usual standard that I think most filmgoers expect when paying to see a movie. One star will be for movies that some people might like, but I’m not one of them. And zero stars will be for the bottom of the barrel. For the record, here is how the translation works:

Old Rating --> New Rating
5 stars ------> 4 stars
4 stars ------> 3 stars
3 stars ------> 2 stars
2 stars ------> 1 star
1 star -------> 0 stars
0 stars ------> 0 stars

If nothing else, this should reduce download times of pages by several nanoseconds.

Of course, there will still be a disproportionate distribution of ratings to what is now the two-star rating. But I can live with that. My experience is that most movies (that I see these days anyway) fall into this category. It’s just that now it won’t seem like I am rewarding these films so much. And, hey, since I get to make up all the rules for this web page, who’s to say that I can’t decide to add back a fifth star someday. I just have to encounter a film that seems a degree higher than Casablanca and the Lord of the Rings movies. (In other words, don’t hold your breath.)

-S.L., 7 August 2003

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