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CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK

The fault in his stars? The Globe’s film critic explains his rating system.

Film critic Odie Henderson explains his star-rating system.Globe Staff

I have a very strong opinion about writing to film critics. But before I go there, let me tell you about an e-mail I recently received. A reader wrote in to agree with me about my review of “A Man Called Otto.” However, this reader took issue with my two-star rating. He expected a lower rating based on what I’d written.

I believed this was a standard two-star review. So, I clicked reply. “Oh, a wise guy, eh?” I typed. “Why, I oughta…”

And then a mighty voice suddenly boomed down from the heavens. “Odie Henderson,” it bellowed. “You are a hypocrite!”

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Back when the late Roger Ebert had a CompuServe forum online, I wrote him a post. It was my first interaction with my future mentor. I’d taken issue with his ★★1/2 review of “Airport 1975.” Roger had written a three-star review, according to me. It was just too positive for his rating.

Roger wrote back, describing the star-rating system with words the Globe won’t allow me to print. He disliked using it! Years later, I’d tell him that I love rating movies with stars. I studied math as an undergrad, so I like quantifying things. In addition, I also assign a letter grade from A to F, like they gave out in high school, but that’s just for my own analysis. Anything below a B- got me grounded by my parents, so I don’t consider a C to be good!

The “Otto” gentleman’s e-mail did bring up a valid point. For those unfamiliar with my pre-Globe reviews, it may feel like I’m just flinging stars about willy-nilly, like some deranged galaxy maker. But, as the Bard once wrote, “Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t.”

Allow me to briefly explain my mad method, rating by rating.

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Globe film critic Odie Henderson

★★★★ This one’s easy. Definitely one of the best films of the year. A must-see. A solid grade of A. I’ve been accused by snootier critics of being too generous with this rating, but it’s the one I most agonize over before giving, because it’s so absolute. Was it really that good? If I can’t get the movie out of my head, it’s a prime candidate for this rating. (See “Aftersun.”)

★★★1/2 I’m more comfortable giving this rating for movies I really enjoyed. There’s some wiggle room for minor complaints here. Gradewise, this is a solid A- or a strong B+, still a must-see in my opinion. Films in my yearly top 10 list either get three-and-a-half or four stars

★★★ If I think a movie does what it set out to do, and does so successfully, it is worth at least three stars. This is the cutoff point for a positive review. I’m saying “see this,” but with reservations. Movies that cater to my trash-loving heart or my darker tendencies often get three (see “M3GAN”). Would equate to a B or B-, and in very rare cases, a weak B+.

★★1/2 Here begin the ratings for negative reviews or, for you Rotten Tomatoes lovers, the ones that earn a “rotten tomato.” It’s the highest grade I can give while still not recommending the movie. Let’s say a C+ or a C. The reviews that earn this grade are the hardest to write, because I have to justify to myself why I can’t give that extra half-star to push it up to positive status. This often leads to the most introspection I do when reviewing. As an aside: On “Siskel & Ebert,” Gene Siskel occasionally accused Roger of giving three stars to a movie that really deserved two and a half. I believe he snarkily called it “the polite three-star review.” I would NEVER do that! (*Dodges lightning.*)

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★★ If we’re being honest, most movies hover around here, a low C or C-. The New York City newspaper I read growing up defined this rating as “mediocre.” I’m willing to go with the description. However, there’s often something in a two-star movie that I have genuine affection for despite everything else that I didn’t like. When that happens, I call these “2 a.m. on cable” movies. That is, if I were drunk or unable to sleep, and this movie were on cable at 2 a.m., I’d probably watch it.

★1/2 I’m telling you it’s not worth wasting your money on this movie, but there’s usually one good thing that stood out, like a performance or something technical like good cinematography or music. But the bottom line is to avoid it.

★ Run like hell! This movie will pull you into the abyss and consume your soul! This is a slight exaggeration.

I also give half-a-star ratings (see “The Whale”), the lowest I’ll give for a movie with no redeeming value. The zero star rating is reserved for something I’d deem morally reprehensible. Considering my morals, the zero star rating doesn’t get used very often.

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Now, regarding my very strong opinion about writing to film critics:

Oh, look! I’m out of space! You wouldn’t have listened to me anyway.


Read more from film critic Odie Henderson:


Odie Henderson is the Boston Globe's film critic. He can be reached at odie.henderson@globe.com.