By Aliya Sternstein You're at the airport, having fought through security just early enough to find out what movie's playing on the cross-country flight, and you have a choice to make. Now showing: The Sum of All Fears. So, do you read BusinessWeek or watch Ben Affleck's take on Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan character in the new flick?
Let's say you've got a few minutes and some valuable resources at your fingertips: the newsstand and a handheld computer. What to do?
EVERYONE'S A CRITIC. Here's what I would do: Use a PDA or a laptop to visit Metacritic.com, a mathematically precise and well-groomed site that finds the best, smartest reviewers and digests their opinions for you. Metacritic -- which evaluates reviews from 38 regional and national players, ranging from well-known critics like Roger Ebert and Elvis Mitchell of The New York Times to smaller publications like LA Weekly and trade sheets such as Variety -- works on Web-enabled cell phones as well as on PDAs and regular PCs.
Nominated for best film site at this year's Webby Awards in San Francisco, Metacritic is a kind of Cinematic Intelligence Agency. It processes dozens of reviews per movie, tallies up the scores, and computes what the site calls a film's "metascore."
A film's metascore is a weighted average of reviews on a scale of 0 to 10, explains 31-year-old co-founder and former lawyer Marc Doyle. The ratings of every critic writing for what Metacritic deems "leading publications" are included, but ratings from well-known critics or prestigious outlets are given extra weight under a formula that the Web site declines to make public. They are then "normalized," a statistical adjustment the company says slightly lowers poor scores and raises solid grades so that contrasts are more clear.
"SUM" TOTAL. For example, The Sum of All Fears came out with a metascore of 42. Average the 33 ratings Metacritic has assembled, and the result is 5.3. (The site translates critics' star ratings or letter grades for movies onto a 1-to-10 scale). But apparently a 2 rating from outlets like The Wall Street Journal and Rolling Stone are accorded more heft than an 8 from The Charlotte Observer or LA Weekly.
The site is simple to use: If the movie's metascore is 61 or higher, critics liked the movie. In reviews that cover every U.S. release since 1999, as well as a broad selection of films from earlier years, critical darling Pulp Fiction is one of only two releases to earn a perfect 100, the other being 2000's rerelease of the 1955 thriller Rififi, directed by Jules Dassin.
Other top performers include E.T. (97), A Hard Day's Night (98), and Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing (96). Among new releases, Metacritic delivers good news about the Al Pacino vehicle Insomnia (80) and Matt Damon's The Bourne Identity (71). On the bad side, current dud Scooby Doo (28) can't stack up to all-time losers like Divorce: The Musical (2002) or Dirty Cop, No Donut, each of which garnered a 1.
MOBILE REVIEWS. For newer movies, a film's score will fluctuate as more reviews are added. I found Metacritic made it well worth the time and effort it takes to install the handheld software, which took me about an hour. If you use the wireless version, you get different features depending on which wireless-Web service provider you choose. Your choices are Vindigo 2.0 or AvantGo. AvantGo, a free download, is compatible with Palm and Windows CE. Vindigo, which requires an annual subscription fee of $24.95, works on PalmPowered handhelds and Pocket PC computers.
Metacritic.com's major flaw is the relative shallowness of its archive. The database collects only major motion pictures, independent film releases, and foreign films with at least three Metacritic-approved reviews since 1999, when the founders, based in Incline Village, Nev., launched the company. The site also has limited DVD, music, and video-game reviews.
The founders -- Jason Dietz, Marc Doyle and Julie Roberts -- eventually want to move into compiling reviews of new books, regional theater performances, and special TV programs. For now, however, they all have other jobs. Ex-real estate litigator Doyle started a charity organization in Southern California, tax lawyer-cum-Metacritic music editor Dietz also designs Web sites and film editor Roberts (no, she wasn't in Pretty Woman, that would be Julia Roberts) practices labor law in Lake Tahoe.
FRESH OR ROTTEN? Metacritic does have strong competition. Rottentomatoes.com, a clever site that also compiles reviews by professional critics, delivers show times by Zip Code, and provides a "Tomatometer" rating. Like Metacritic, the Tomatometer measures a movie's approval rating based on an average of outside reviews. Unlike, Metacritic, however, Rottentomatoes sticks to either "fresh" or "rotten," instead of calibrating reviews on a 0-to-10 scale like Metacritic.
Of the two, Metacritic is the more precise -- and Rottentomatoes more fun, what with its pictures of ripe tomatoes next to good movies and splotches of goop next to the dogs. One bad thing about Rottentomatoes: Unlike Metacritic, it doesn't work on PDAs. Overall, Metacritic presents the most scientific and navigable data. In sum -- no Clancy allusion intended -- Metacritic.com is a great source of information and a good deal more enjoyable than Divorce, the Musical. I'll give it a 9. Sternstein is an intern for BusinessWeek in New York