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How I Rate the Movies:
A Philosophy of Film Criticism

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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July 29, 1996, updated April 3, 2018 -- This article explains the movie rating system I use for Laramie Movie Scope, formerly known as At The Movies in Laramie and the Laramie Moviola (I had a trademark problem with the Magnasync/Moviola Corporation), what I look for in a movie, my favorite films, my background and stuff like that, in other words, it's my philosophy on movies.

I was a newspaper reporter for more than 20 years and started writing movie reviews in the 1980s. I retired in May of 2000. I had worked as a general assignment reporter for the Laramie Daily Boomerang since November of 1979. In addition to reviews, I wrote editorials and columns. I covered city government, the University of Wyoming, Internet, telecommunications, science and environmental issues. I was a member of the Society of Professional Journalists and the Society of Environmental Journalists. I am also a member of the Online Film Critics Society.

Prior to moving to Laramie, I worked as a reporter for the Ironwood Daily Globe in Ironwood, Michigan for about 4 years. I have a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Oregon (1970). But I was a movie fan long before I took a course in movie appreciation at UO.I've been a student of movies for over 45 years.

Writing movie reviews is something I had wanted to do for years before I finally got the opportunity to do it, when my reviews were first published in the Encore section of the Boomerang. I used to use a 1-10 scale for rating movies. Once, I was questioned after giving ‘Dances With Wolves’ a mere eight, “what does it take to get a 10 out of you?”

That's a good question. If I was one of the gymnastics judges in the Olympics I would never have given a 10 anyone. There's no such thing as human perfection, but sometimes you have to give people a break and award a 10 anyway.

Of all the films I have seen, and I've seen a lot, I would only give a 10 to two films. The first is “Citizen Kane,” a film of such artistry and brilliance one could frame each individual image and hang it on the wall as a work of art. It broke much new ground in 1941, but nobody has caught up with Orson Welles yet.

The other film I would award with a 10 is “Lawrence of Arabia,” Sir David Lean's 1962 masterpiece. Peter O'Toole gives an outstanding performance as the lead character along with Arthur Kennedy, Claude Rains, Omar Sharif and Anthony Quinn. I recently saw the restored version of this film in 70 millimeter. The photography is unsurpassed. The best use of location shots ever. The screenplay is highly literate and there's a great musical score. This is a film you cannot appreciate unless you see it on a really big screen. The excellent photography gets chopped to bits on television.

So much for the tens. I abandoned the one to 10 format years ago. I had this mental block about perfect tens and I have a fixation on the number seven. This goes back to my grade school days when 70 percent was considered a "C" or average. I have been giving average films a 7, or C since the beginning. It screwed up the whole system.

Most critics use a four star system, with one star being poor and four being excellent. I always thought that system too confining, at least that's what I used to think. Ebert and Roeper, of course use the simplest method of all, thumbs up or thumbs down. That's even more confining.

The one to four scale also does not have the magical aura of a “perfect 10,” it is a simple, 1-poor, 2-fair, 3-good and 4-excellent. Since it is a rough scale you don't mind giving two very different movies the same rating. My system is the same, except I also use letters for the numbers: A, B, C, D, with A being the same as four stars and D being one star. If there's a movie “on the bubble” I add a plus or minus. It is a simple, but flexible system, used by many critics.

I've also more recently added “stars” to my rating system. One star equals a D, two is a C, three is a B and four is an A. A “bomb” is zero stars, or an F. This is actually a five-star system disguised as four stars. I also use half-stars. In my system, a C- and a D+ are both the same, one and one-half stars. In this scheme, B- and C+ are also the same, two and one-half stars, etc. If you analyze my system closely, you'll see it is actually a nine-point rating system, only slightly different than the 10-point system I discarded. Pretty funny. I've come just about full circle in trying to find a system that works.

For instance, in the old system, I gave “Rambo, First Blood Part II” and “Amadeus” the same rating of nine, even though they are completely different types of films. I would be somewhat less embarrassed if they were both A's, although I would now, after repeated viewings, downgrade Rambo to a B. I'm still very fond of it despite its comic book silliness.

I know what you're thinking: “Amadeus” is a lot more like a work of art than “Rambo.” True, but I was just as entertained by it when I first saw it, despite the fact that F. Murray Abraham gave one of the finest performances I have ever seen and Sylvester Stallone can barely act.

You do not have to witness a work of art to be entertained by a film (this is where the philosophy comes into play). Some critics put way too much emphasis on the filmmakers' craft, or lack of it. If Rex Reed likes a film, for instance, I am apt not to like it. If he hates a film I may like it. One is always drawn to a critic who reflects one's own taste in films. I find Leonard Maltin's annual “TV Movies and Video Guide” reflects my tastes pretty well. I also liked most of the late Roger Ebert's critiques. He was less of an elitist than most.

While films can certainly be artistic, most people go to movies to be entertained. So-called “art films” such as “Dead Man,” “The Piano” and “Aguirre, The Wrath of God,” receive critical acclaim, but may do very poorly at the box office because people just don't find them entertaining. Such films often highlight a schism between some critics, and the vast majority of paying film customers.

It could be that some people go to a movie looking for art, while other just go looking for entertainment. Sometimes, you can have both, but sometimes it doesn't happen. Personally, I didn't find “Dead Man,” “Aguirre, the Wrath of God” or “The Piano” entertaining, yet each of these films received acclaim from many critics. I believe, however, that the average moviegoer who sees these films would agree with me and not those elitist critics.

In part, I think these kinds of offbeat films are enjoyed by people who have grown tired of conventional Hollywood films and long for something, anything, different. The three films mentioned above are, indeed, different, and they also express an artistic vision. For some critics, and some filmgoers, this is enough. For me, and for many other filmgoers like myself, it is not enough. A film must also entertain. I must give us our $10 worth.

Unfortunately, some of those who like those kind of films mentioned above aren't content to leave the rest of us alone. They try to attack other films that are much more popular. They also explain away the fact that the films they like aren't as popular by arguing most people are inferior to themselves. It is sort of like that Calvin and Hobbs cartoon where Calvin says something like, “People make the mistake of thinking art is for them. Art is really a secret language enabling sophisticates to congratulate themselves on their superiority to others.”

Some people even try to deny against all factual evidence that films they don't like are not successful. I had a lengthy debate with some people who argued “Pearl Harbor” could not be a financially successful film, just because they believed it was a bad film. In fact, it was one of the most financially successful films of its time. The fact is some great films have been financial flops, and some terrible films have had great financial success. I remember one year when the movies on the Raspberry Awards (worst films of the year) list made more money than the films on the Academy Awards list.

Regardless of what many critics might claim, reaction to films comes as much from the heart as from the mind. All critics have a gut reaction to films. They either like them or not. Afterward, they rationalize their reactions by citing the accomplishments or the shortfalls of a film.

Many critics, for instance, panned the film “Independence Day.” But the film was loved by millions of people. Why did so many people love this film and so many critics hate it? The popularity of this film mystified many critics. The best explanation that Siskel and Ebert could muster for the success of this film, one of the top box office smashes of all time, was that “people like explosions.” Pretty weak, guys. There have been plenty of films with lots of explosions that flopped at the box office.

I think Independence Day was a success primarily because it affected people on an emotional level. I know I reacted that way to it. It appealed to people's patriotism. The film promotes American patriotism, so naturally, critics from other countries (and there are lots of them on the Internet) didn't like it. Too bad. There were real heroes in the film, not the anti-heroes that are so fashionable today in the films of Tarantino and others. It was also a big story about a huge global conflict that was still character-driven at its core. It never lost track of the people at the center of the spectacle. That's why people liked it. It was also funny and well-acted. In short, it was a good movie. I gave it a B.

Cynics, and a lot of critics become cynical, can't stand movies that appeal to patriotism, or have old-fashioned heroes, so they panned Independence Day. Critics had a gut reaction to the film, and they found reasons to pan it. They'll never admit it, but that's what happens. I'll try not to let that happen to me, but Hollywood does wear you down after watching thousands of films. By the way, a lot of cynical people also hated the film “Forrest Gump” for a lot of the same reasons the same kinds of people hated “Independence Day.”

In a sense then, if a critic is to be of any service for his readers, that is try to steer them toward entertaining films and away from dogs (even artistic dogs), his taste should be as common as possible, not geared to such a high artistic plane that only a relative few can benefit from his advice. There are, after all, plenty of critics seeking to serve the artistic crowd. I don't turn up my nose at artistic films. I like them if they are well-crafted.

My taste in films is pretty eclectic. I like everything from “art” films like “Antonia's Line” to “Independence Day” and “Dante's Peak.” It's not that I don't know how films are made, about musical scores, editing, camera work, screen writing acting and directing, I do; I just don't feel that specialized knowledge should get in the way of how a film relates to my funny bone, or my heart.

A critic should not get so wrapped up in analyzing a film that he forgets to enjoy it. I have read some critics who seem to hate films. I feel sorry for them. I love the movies. A critic should also not take himself too seriously or feel it is his mission in life to lift up the artistic standards of his poor, stupid, non-intellectual readers. That is empty vanity.

Another mistake I try to avoid is to judge a film on its political or religious content, or judge a film based on how attractive the actors or actresses are. You'd be surprised how many critics violate one or more of these principles. I take note of politics, religion and attractiveness, of course, but I try not to let those factors sway my judgment. I point out these things to my readers in case they are interested. For instance, I thought the politics in “The Contender" was ridiculously unrealistic, and I pointed that out in my review, but I gave the movie an "A" rating.

Another approach to movie criticism I avoid, for practical reasons, is trying to rate a movie based on how well it reflects the source material it is based upon. Many movies are based on books, plays, video games, or other source materials. As a practical matter, I cannot possibly read every book that is made into a movie. I don't play video games, and there is no way I can see every play that is made into a movie. That goes for most other critics, too. If a movie is based on real events, I will occasionally do research to see how accurately it portrays those events, since that may seem to be something that is important to do.

The other reason for not making comparisons between a movie and its source material, beside the practical problems, is that a movie is fundamentally different from some kinds of source material, such as books. Sometimes, there are very legitimate reasons for making changes from the written source material in order to make the movie work better.

For instance, a book may go on at great lengths about what a person is thinking. That works fine in a book, but that sort of thing is hard to film. There are people, however who insist that movies that are not faithful to the source material are always bad and movies that are faithful are always good. This is wrong, of course, but there is no way to reason with these people. I've been on both sides of this argument in the past, and I have finally had to adapt.

My fervent prayer has always been: Lord save us from those who say they want to “educate the public” by using the media. Such people have no concept of education. What they are talking about is propaganda.

There are some readers who don't think I should even be allowed to mention politics, particularly liberal politics, in my reviews. There is no rule against describing the political content of a film, or mentioning how that political content relates to situations in society. One reader got all upset that I pointed out that Charles Dickens was a liberal (regarding the liberal content in a movie version of “A Christmas Carol.” Agree, or disagree with the political content in films, obvious or implied, I don't care, but don't even try to claim politics is off limits in film criticism. No such rule exists. Politics is everywhere. There is no point in pretending it doesn't exist in films. Don't try to censor my reviews in this regard. My web site, my reviews, my rules. Back off.

I would say number one on my list of favorite films is “Lawrence of Arabia,” followed by “Citizen Kane,” “Amadeus,” “Dr. Strangelove,” “Tootsie,” “On Golden Pond,” “Casablanca,” “Tokyo Story” (a 1953 movie directed by Yosujiro Ozu, considered a Japanese classic), “Schindler's List,” “Hoop Dreams” and “Ran.” I have liked the films directed by the great Japanese director Akira Kurosawa, since I first saw them back in the 1960s.

I like films by directors such as David Lean, Kurosawa, Stanley Kramer, William Friedken, John Frankenheimer, Steven Spielberg, Ridley Scott, James Cameron, and Robert Zemekis. I like big, sweeping epics, action movies, science fiction and drama. I like stories that have real heroes. I like stories of redemption. I like heroes who are flawed, but who manage to overcome their flaws. I like uplifting stories. I like stories that celebrate people who are kind to others. I love a good comedy, but they are so very rare.

I'd like to thank LARIAT sysop Brett Glass with helping me to design this page and for giving me the opportunity to put this on the Internet. Oh, and by the way, I am the webmaster for this movie review section of LARIAT. Most of the graphics on this page came from sites like Bells and Whistles, or at The Clipart Connection. If you really want to see what I look like, here's a photo of me at work in my oversized log cabin on the prairie.

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Copyright © 1996 Robert Roten. All rights reserved. Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at my last name at lariat dot org. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

(If you e-mail me with a question about this or any other movie or review, please mention the name of the movie you are asking the question about, otherwise I may have no way of knowing which film you are referring to)