Kudos to Ben Domenech for this analysis. I just want to build on it.
Ebert’s rationale in grading movies has been described by Ebert himself as “relative, not absolute.” Expanding on this, Ebert believes that it is important to grade a particular film as it compares to similar films in the genre:
When you ask a friend if Hellboy is any good, you’re not asking if it’s any good compared to Mystic River, you’re asking if it’s any good compared to The Punisher. And my answer would be, on a scale of one to four, if Superman is four, then Hellboy is three and The Punisher is two. In the same way, if American Beauty gets four stars, then The United States of Leland clocks in at about two.
While I see the merit in this approach, it can be carried too far. At the end of the day, films are films, and even if one film is superior within the confines of its own genre, it may justifiably be found inferior to a film that occupies space in another genre. In short, it’s not the most outrageous thing to say that that Mystic River is a better film than Hellboy, even after one acknowledges that it may be somewhat difficult to compare films that are part of different genres.
But forget those objections for a moment. Assume that Ebert is absolutely right, and that one can only make comparisons within genres. How then to explain–as Ben points out–the fact that Godfather II got three stars from Ebert, while Godfather III . . . well . . . read this:
In his review, Roger Ebert stated that it’s “not even possible to understand [Godfather III] without knowing the first two.” Ebert did, however, write a very enthusiastic review. Awarding the film with three-and-a-half stars, which is a higher rating than what he gave The Godfather: Part II (three-stars). He also defended the casting of Sofia Coppola, who he felt wasn’t miscast. Stating: “There is no way to predict what kind of performance [Francis Ford Coppola] might have obtained from Winona Ryder, the experienced and talented young actress, who was originally set to play this role. But I think Sofia Coppola brings a quality of her own to Mary Corleone. A certain up-front vulnerability and simplicity that I think are appropriate and right for the role.”
Good luck calling the paramedics before you go into shock.