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 starring beautiful bather Esther Williams playing opposite to the buffoon Red Skelton.
According to your cable TV provider’s channel guide, “Neptune’s Daughter” rates three stars on a four-star scale. Given that ringing endorsement, you settle down on the couch with every intention of enjoying the movie — until you’d rather watch something other than a funnier, funnier minute of “Neptune’s Daughter.”
You conclude that while “Neptune’s Daughter” gives three stars – the same rating your channel guide has given to other more recent comedies, including “Roxanne”, “Something’s Gotta Give” and “The Incredibles” – it doesn’t there is no justice in this world.
Attribute these subjective disparities, say film critics, to the ever-changing tastes of American audiences.
Indeed, while an innocent game like “Neptune’s Daughter” may have earned three stars when it hit theaters 61 years ago, members of today’s more jaded and world-weary audience might argue that he deserves less. The problem is that those original three stars are practically cast in stone; critics say they don’t have time to re-evaluate every older film and revise accordingly how many stars they think a particular film may deserve in the context of society’s ever-changing sensibilities .
“Times change and tastes change with them,” says film critic and historian Leonard Maltin. “It’s the peril of revisiting older movies. It’s like seeing a friend you haven’t seen in years. Maybe that kid you thought was so funny in high school isn’t so funny anymore. Nowadays.
Conversely, says Maltin, some older films taken for granted at the time deserve more stars today than they initially received because of their enduring or newfound popularity among moviegoers.
“Film noir, hard-hitting melodrama, didn’t get a huge amount of respect in its time,” Maltin says, “but it’s popular now because it’s cynical. It is suitable for today’s audience.
Maltin’s highly rated, annually updated “Movie Guide” features over 17,000 encapsulated Maltin movie reviews, each rated on a four-star scale. He rarely reviews those star ratings, Maltin says, not only because he’s too busy rewatching recently released movies, but because he doesn’t want to be accused of “flinging around flippantly.”
Debate rages among critics over the validity of the star rating system itself. Most reviews that use it employ a four-star scale. Generally speaking, four stars mean that the film is sublime, three connotes good and two indicates correct. A one-star movie suggests your evening could be better spent rearranging the closet. Other critics give five or even six stars to what they consider to be the best films. Some add half stars to the mix, some use thumbs (up or down), some rely on academic-like ratings. (The Los Angeles Times does not use a star rating system for movies).
That’s enough to give the average moviegoer a headache.
Chicago Tribune film critic Michael Phillips, who like Maltin uses the four-star rating system, nevertheless dismisses it as “ridiculous, but useful as a shortcut”. Any movie buff who wants to know what a reviewer really thinks of a movie, Phillips says, should read that reviewer’s full review.
However, people who watch old movies on TV usually don’t have access to full reviews unless they have the ability and are so inclined to read them online. Instead, they should rely on the brief descriptions and corresponding star ratings that appear on their channel guides.
These ratings and mini-reviews are usually not generated by the cable companies themselves, but rather by providers 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 around the world.
How does TMS determine which movies deserve how many stars?
As scientifically as possible, says Jodie J. Russo, executive director of content operations at TMS.
“Our film editors,” Russo says, “look for a variety of sources for critical reviews that range from online sites that aggregate reviews from well-known industry critics, specialty sites that focus on certain genres, and then sources site industry commercials such as Variety”.
All of these sources are then considered collectively to generate what Russo calls “an educated note.” While viewers might argue that some ratings are way off the mark (see “Neptune’s Daughter”), the fact is that the number of stars a given movie receives is just an opinion and, as as such, always subject to debate, says Russo.
The bottom line, says Matt Atchity, editor of popular online movie review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, is that any attempt to quantify a movie’s quality, whether by stars, inches or ratings, shouldn’t deter anyone from finally watching this. film.
Of 91 moviegoers who logged on to Rotten Tomatoes and indicated they’d seen “Neptune’s Daughter,” nearly two-thirds said they enjoyed the film, whose plot — if you can call it a plot — involves ditzy Betty (Betty Garrett, playing Williams’ sister) mistaking wacky masseur Jack Spratt (Skelton) for Jose O’Rourke, captain of a South American polo team.
Maltin insists that the film is not without virtues. It won an Oscar for Best Original Song (“Baby It’s Cold Outside”) and features the appearance of comedian Mel Blanc, best known as the voice of Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig and hundreds of other characters from cartoons.
In his “Guide Book”, Maltin calls “Neptune’s Daughter”, “Bubbly fun”.
He gives it three stars.