Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Leonard Maltin Movie Guide: Its Most Bizarre Star Ratings

There’s lots of choice when it comes to buying general, cover-all-bases film guides. Ones that I’ve bought over the years include the Halliwell Film Guide, the Radio Times Film Guide, the Time Out Film Guide, the Virgin Film Guide and the Empire Film Guide. The Leonard Maltin Movie Guide, however, is for me and many others the perennial. I’ve been reading it- and buying a new edition every few years- for almost 30 years. It’s cheap and has over 1500 pages densely-packed with information and lucid, no-nonsense reviews so even if you don’t agree with the opinions it’s still worth buying.

And it’s worth examining the pros and cons of this very well-known book, I think. The Maltin Guide sometimes makes me cry out in disbelief but the ‘hip’ and ‘intellectual’ (and much more expensive) Time Out Film Guide is just as annoying in different ways. Its critics often come across as pompous asses who think their tedious analysis of a film’s ideological ‘sub-text’ is more important than a clear review of the film itself, and they often recommend mind-numbing arthouse nonsense whilst panning perfectly good commercial movies. In a way the Maltin Guide, the boring old been-there-for-ever uncle of the movie guide world, has a more honest approach.

And you have to give Maltin and his team credit for the amount of films they include, the depth of their knowledge and the succinct way they summarise plots in a sentence or two. They supply interesting background material on nearly every film and they're especially good about cast matters, connections between remakes, sequels and different versions, the personal importance of a film to the film-makers, literary sources and the involvement of screenwriters and producers. In many respects the Maltin Guide is still a kind of masterpiece of compression.

And what I also love about the Maltin Guide is that even after 30 years of being a movie fanatic I can still discover in it many interesting-sounding films I didn’t know existed. You can’t get that experience from the Empire Guide or many of the other guides and while the Time Out Guide also contains hundreds of tantalising obscurities, it doesn’t sum things up as quickly and efficiently as you need when you’re just casually browsing through and it’s nowhere near as comprehensive about films before 1970. 

On the other hand, these days the opinions of the Maltin Guide can seem out of touch and I worry that it’s going the route of Halliwell i.e. hopelessly disconnected from what anyone under the age of 80 thinks. Here’s just a few of its more obvious howlers on modern cinema (from the 2010 edition):

Fight Club (1999): ** ‘turns heavy-handed, and then heads towards an alarmingly senseless resolution’

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) **½ ‘the characters and the story are never as compelling as one would like’

Munich (2005) **½  ‘there is less here than meets the eye. A seeming lack of focus, and a feeling of treading familiar ground’

The Assassination Of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) **½ ‘crippled by overlength’

The Dark Knight (2008): ** ‘incredibly long’ (I agree that it’s over-long and has too many climaxes but it’s still an amazing film and to give it 2 stars is ridiculous)

Astonishingly, all of these are considered lesser films than the awful What Just Happened (2008) or the very mediocre 15 Minutes (2001) or the atrocity Australia (2008), which all get  ***. I mean, really?  REALLY? Are you sure about that?

The Maltin Guide gives the first and second Matrix films the same rating - **½ - when any sane person can see the first one is the much better film. It gives Sidney Lumet’s excellent Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007) only  **½ but his Running on Empty (1988), a decent but unremarkable film,  ***½. It gives Mike Nichols’ Silkwood (1983) *** but his Closer (2004), a far sharper and more complex and interesting film, only  **½.

At the same time it’s still giving **** to many fusty older films that it hasn’t changed its opinion on in decades. It really should consider a re-think on the likes of The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1935) The Life of Emile Zola (1937) Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1940) Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) They Were Expendable (1945) The River (1951) Ordet (1954) Mister Roberts (1955) Anastasia (1956) Lust for Life (1956) Friendly Persuasion (1956) Gigi (1958) Mon Oncle (1958) A Night to Remember (1958) Ride the High Country (1962) Petulia (1968) Bite the Bullet (1975) and many others (also see my previous post about over-rated movies, especially point no.11). Go back and watch these films today and you’ll realise they aren’t that good. In fact most of them are pretty bad. And to recommend them over Taxi Driver (1976), which gets ** or Amadeus (1984), which gets **½, is bordering on the preposterous. 

I also have to say that the few modern films the Maltin Guide does award **** to are sometimes perverse choices, like My Architect (2003), a so-so documentary, In the Shadow of the Moon (2007), which got decent reviews but is hardly one of the films of the decade, or The Fast Runner (2002) (acclaimed by many but in fact quite tedious) Nowhere in Africa (2001) and Songcatcher (2001)

I said I was worried that Maltin was ‘going the route of Halliwell’ because Leslie Halliwell, whose film guide is now continued by different authors since his passing, was famous for his irrational hostility to modern cinema. In the 1980’s he was still publishing a list of his 100 favourite films that contained just one film since 1960: Charley Bubbles (1968) !!! That has to be one of the all-time most absurd opinions in the history of film criticism: one has to be pretty eccentric to think that this forgettable Albert Finney flick is somehow the best film of the 60’s or 70’s. Thankfully Maltin is not quite that bad; some modern films it does get right, with high ratings, include School of Rock (2003) Sideways (2004) Grizzly Man (2005) Apocalypto (2006) Little Children (2006) and The Class (2008).

If you want to see the full list of Maltin 4-star films, it's online- just Google it.


  1. There are a few points I dislike in recent Maltin guides
    1. His team never revises it reviews between issues.
    2. What is the point of having pages of his selected film stars at the back when one can get much more information on movie persona from the IMdb website?
    3. From a lack space he no longer includes reviews of TV movies. True that back in the 1970s most TV movies were horrible Daniele Steele stuff but nowadays many are just as good , if not better than theatrical works, e.g. Moby Dick and the best ever productions of Arabian Nights, Kidnapped and Jamaica Inn.
    4. One of the reasons he is running out of space is that since the 1990s many of the reviews are very lengthy, not the review itself but because the Maltin reviewers insist on listing all the major stars. For example in the 2012 edition the piece on Cold Mountain runs to 30 lines of which 15 are devoted solely to listing persona names. Here one would naturally seek such information from IMdb, jus adding the top three names would be enough. I notice that the review of earlier movies is much shorter and pithy, though they also tended to add too many names, e.g. 7 lines out of 15 for the review of My Man Godfrey were name listings. A short review unencumbered with too many names is all that movie buffs really want.
    5. I am thankful I did not trash earlier editions of Maltin as he has decided to omit many old classics from recent editions. He claims lack of space but then advertises his new Classic Movie Guide for all movies previously included in the main guides up to 1969.
    6. Maltin’s Movie Guide is primarily aimed at a North American audience and mostly includes theatrical released movies. Here IMdb has a clear advantage over Maltin especially with non-American movies. The most ridiculous review was on the great movie Waterloo - starring Christopher Plummer as the Duke of Wellington and Rod Steiger as Napoleon - the reviewer wrote ““Tremendous action but muddled plot”! He should have complained to the real Wellington and Napoleon, not to the film’s producers.
    7. While IMdb has the advantage of being continuously updated Maltin’s Movie Guide is released in autumn thus the 2012 edition does not include Skyfall which was released in November.
    8. I get the impression that Maltin’s team of critics are a bunch of 1960s or 1970s hippies, the aging love-in crowd. Oddly they seem to a have a mid-American bias against horror and erotic movies.
    9. I really miss the Cinemania interactive CD-ROM product sold in several editions in the mid-1990s. Unfortunately Microsoft no longer produces it probably because of IMdb. It usually came in bundle of CD-ROMs given away with a new PC. Cinemania contained all Maltin reviews with many of those from Egbert and Kael. It was not a truly interactive facility which neither Maltin’s paperback nor can IMdb provide.
    10. Still Maltin's Movie Guide was a pioneer; it has promoted a wider interest in filmmaking and movies, and is excellent as a bathroom reader.

  2. Thanks for this, Paul. You make many good points.

  3. My complaint(s) about the movie guide, apart from the ones listed above, is there are some blatant cases of pure ignorance on the part of the contributors. A classic example of this is the infamous review for Scoobie Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed (**, "It is what it is."). That's it? No plot listing? What's it about? Etc.

    Another good example is for Problem Child 2 (*1/2) which tells of the father (John Ritter, r.i.p.) "...adopting a second child...intent on giving her brother a run for his money in the mischief department.". Fair enough, except it's completely wrong. Did any of them even watch the film, or did they just look at the video box and take a guess at the plot?

    Police Academy VII: Mission To Moscow (BOMB): "They waited five years to do another sequel. It wasn't worth it". Again, what's the film about??

    I'm not saying any of the films I mentioned is going to be the next Casablanca (or even Caboblanco, for that matter), but Maltin's got to stop insulting the intelligence of his reader base. If the New York Times Review Of Books, instead of listing the plot and background of a novel, simply said "Don't bother with this, it sucks", chances are there would be a flood of complaints.