If you get an edition of "Halliwell's Film and Video Guide," be sure to get one of those published while the late Mr. Halliwell still walked the earth. While John Walker may be able to give the impression that he's channeling the master, it's preferable to simply have the original at his acerbic best.
The Halliwell worldview is summed up perfectly in "The Decline and Fall of the Movie," the essay that always ended each of his editions. It's the lament of a buff who came of age in the 1930s and '40s, one who never even came to grips with the wide screen, let alone the profanity, extreme violence and other elements that had crept into film by the early 1970s.
Halliwell took the position that, by and large, filmmakers in the latter part of the 20th century either made pretentious rubbish that catered to small, elite audiences, or addle-minded schlock that was intended to appeal to the lowest common denominator.
This isn't to say that he didn't give high ratings to certain films of the '70s and '80s, such "The Towering Inferno," "Taxi Driver," "E.T." or "Gandhi" (three asterisks to each of these), but that overall, his opinions of the output of this era are negative.
The format of each entry is easy to read, beginning with title, a rating from zero to four asterisks, production year, country of origin, running time, studio, color and/or widescreen process, and producer. After the plot summary and review, credits for writing, direction, photography, music and production design are listed, and then the actors. Contributions Halliwell deems particularly noteworthy are denoted by italics.
After perhaps a series of quotes from other critics, Academy Awards and nominations are listed.
As another reviewer noted, you'd do well to adjust the Halliwell scale one asterisk upward by most other critical standards, so that one asterisk is at least two on another critic's scale, two asterisks are equal to three, and so on.
For me, after all the smoke of Halliwell's biases have cleared, a remarkable number of his thousands of reviews are right on the money, especially when the asterisk ratings are adjusted. The reviews are very short, and the critic is sometimes straitjacketed by the need to be so brief.
But also worth noting are the quotes he chooses from other reviews. Sometimes these are in line with his own view; sometimes they are completely opposite. Much of the time, they add to his own conclusions by pointing out issues that he has not otherwise commented on.
His review of one of my personal favorites, "Spartacus," which he gives two asterisks, goes thus: "Long, well-made, downbeat epic with deeper than usual characterization and several bravura sequences."
He then italicizes the contributions of director Stanley Kubrick and cinematographer Russell Metty (the latter won an Oscar). So far, it's hard to see why he wouldn't give the film three asterisks. But then we see that none of the actors' names are italicized. He then lists other quotes. Critic Anne Grayson comments on the film's "lack of imagination." Stanley Kauffman is quoted as calling it "a first-rate circus." Alan Dent says the viewer "comes away feeeling revolted and not at all ennobled."
So somehow, Halliwell is saying the film is very well-assembled as a spectacle, but lacks a dimension that would make it inspiring. I think he's asking too much of the movie, but I don't deny most of what he's saying. Adjust the asterisk rating, and you have a pretty cohesive review.
All in all, "Halliwell's Film and Video Guide" is too terse to be used all by itself, as good as it is. It's best taken as a complement to other guides, such as Leonard Maltin's, and compilations of longer reviews by Pauline Kael, Roger Ebert, Stanley Kauffman and others. For British film criticism every bit as tough as Halliwell's, but more detailed, try the "Time Out Film Guide."