When I first started my website, www.benjamin-m-weilert.com, I knew I wanted it to be a repository of reviews for all the books I’ve read and all the movies I’ve seen. I have some of these reviews scattered across the web, but I wanted a single location where all of them could reside. A single place where I could control these reviews. Now that my website is almost a year-and-a-half old, I have accumulated over 250 reviews on it. These reviews range from nights at the Colorado Springs Philharmonic to audiobooks to movies to books received from authors and/or publishers.

As most of my reviews, I provide a “star” rating to help visitors to my site determine if the piece of media is worth their time. Early on, I based most of my ratings on an intuitive “hunch” of what I felt the work deserved. This scale (from 0.0 to 5.0) is mostly subjective and, while this is still largely the case, by now I’ve codified much of why I provide the star ratings I do, distilled down to a few different criteria. I’ll explain this “Reviewer’s Rubric” later, but first I need to explain how many of these ratings are based on a single idea: expectation.

The expectation for a movie or book will bias a review.

It has been said, “You can’t judge a book by its cover.” While I understand it idiom is primarily applied to people’s appearances, I have found that it’s not entirely accurate for books and movies. As the cover of a piece of media needs to sell it, many expectations and biases are formed right from the first glance. Of course, while I appreciate the critically-acclaimed movies that win plenty of awards, sometimes I just want to sit down with a screwball comedy and laugh. This is where expectations come into play. If I’m expecting something to be great, I’ll be disappointed if it’s not. Conversely, if I know the movie or book I’m getting into shouldn’t be taken seriously, I’m usually satisfied if it entertains me. After all, the main reason any of us picks up a book to read or sits down to watch a movie is whether or not we’re expecting to be entertained.

Therefore, if I give a movie like The Jungle Book (2016) 5.0 stars, it’s likely for a different reason than the 5.0 stars I’d give to Interstellar (2014). Both movies received these ratings, but for different reasons. The Jungle Book is an amazing, if not superior, adaptation of an animated classic, whereas Interstellar is an emotionally-moving sci-fi epic with a mind-bending twist. In both cases, I went in with certain expectations based on what I knew of the films from previews and trailers, as well as the cast and crew that made them. The reason both of these films deserve 5.0 stars, in my opinion, is likely due to how they surpassed my expectations. If they had just met my expectations, they’d likely sit at a 4.0 or 4.5 rating. Of course, the reverse is true as well: if the movie failed to meet my expectations, it would receive a poor rating.

Books or movies with the same rating may have it for different reasons.

As it turns out, “Expectations” is the foundation for each of my ratings. It usually influences the review heavily but is also informed by four other categories: Characters, Plot, Style, and Distractions. Each of these sections is a little different for books, as compared to my movie reviews, so let’s go through them separately . . .

MOVIE:

  1. Expectations – Since the majority of movies I watch are produced by Hollywood or are classics identified in books like 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, my expectations for these films are usually pretty high. This is because my bias comes from outside sources that will indicate whether or not a movie will be “good.”
  2. Characters – Are the characters likable? Are they realistic? Do I care about these characters?
  3. Plot – Does the plot (and its twists) make sense? Is it realistic? Am I struggling to stay awake during the film?
  4. Style – This mostly applies to the cinematography, but the “visuals” provided by CGI often influences this section.
  5. Distractions – Is the acting too over the top? Are the jokes consistently low-brow or lame? Are there unnecessary elements that distract from the core of the movie?
Review Rubric
The 5 elements of a Review

BOOK:

  1. Expectations – For most books, the title and cover set much of my expectations. If an author or publisher sends me a novel comparing it to a famous/popular one, then I expect that it will be at least as good as the one they’ve compared it to. This is rarely the case. So, word of caution to authors out there: if you compare your book to a bestseller, be prepared to underwhelm your readers.
  2. Characters – Are the characters likable? Are they realistic? Do I care about these characters?
  3. Plot – Does the plot (and its twists) make sense? Is it realistic? Am I struggling to get through it and just want to quit reading?
  4. Style – Is the author’s writing easy to understand? Are the author’s biases and beliefs blatantly apparent through their writing? Are they “elitist?” Is the prose clunky and/or annoying?
  5. Distractions – This one is huge. Most of the sub-par ratings I give are because of this category. What’s unfortunate is that these distractions are easy to fix if you have a good editor and formatter. A short list of these distractions falls into two sub-categories . . .
    • Proofreading: Spelling, homophones, punctuation, and grammar.
    • Formatting: Justify-align not used, too many blank pages, weird gaps, inconsistent section break markings, and no first-line indents.

As you can see, there are a few similarities between the two rubrics. Because there are five categories, you can generally equate each of those to a single “star” of the rating. Sometimes the strength of one of the categories (like “Style,” for instance) can overcome one of the weaker categories (usually the “Distractions” category).

Of course, one of the most significant differences between the movie reviews and the book reviews comes from my experience as an author. I don’t have any experience making movies, so I’m usually pretty lenient and will usually rate a little higher than average for films when compared to books. This is because I know what it takes to make a good book, and that’s probably the base of my expectations. If a book doesn’t match up with my self-imposed standards for my writing, then there’s room for improvement which I usually detail in my review.

Even an atrociously bad book or movie will receive 0.5 stars.

With all this being said, what about the 0-star reviews? If I can make it all the way through a book or movie, the lowest rating it will receive will be for 0.5 stars. I have a reasonably high tolerance for bad books, so I will often suffer through to the end of a book. This is so I can give a review of the entire work. After all, it’s not fair to the author if the “hook” for their book isn’t good enough to grab my attention, but the story and characters become interesting later on. Alternatively, if the “hook” is good enough, but the story peters out, and the characters start to grate on me, I’ve usually invested enough time into the book that I’ll finish it out of spite. There have been some books I should have stopped reading, but didn’t, and I’m learning my time is worth more than that. So, if I cannot make it all the way through a book, I won’t give it a star rating, but I will review it to lay out the reasons why I could not finish. After all, the star ratings do affect a book’s rankings on sites like Goodreads and Amazon, so I don’t want to skew those metrics on a book I didn’t even finish reading.

I will once again iterate that my Review Rubrics are more guidelines for my ratings, and I will usually put some verbiage in my reviews that highlight which of the five categories I thought the book or movie excelled in or needed to improve. When it comes right down to it, a lot of the rating is just finding a number that “feels” right, but with the reasoning to back it up.

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