The Movie Club

The Tyranny of Tasteful Movies
Critic vs. critic.
Jan. 6 2009 3:59 PM

The Movie Club

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Dear Dana, Lisa, Jessica, and Jeannette,

It's great to be here. You've already laid down many threads that are begging to be chased down. So instead of wasting valuable space with virtual air kissing—much as I love air kissing!—I'm going to just jump right in.

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In answer to one of Dana's original questions, I loathe making a 10-best list in any year (in fact, most critics I know hate it), but I didn't find the task any harder this year. Maybe I did reach a little deeper into the margins of indie and foreign releases—there's some stuff on there, like Before I Forget, Jacques Nolot's piercing but delicate meditation on aging, that might not have played outside of a few major cities, but I think it's OK to include those on any list: There's always Netflix. And you have to go with your heart. Like you guys, I didn't find any particular richness in the big year-end releases. Then again, over the past few years I've grown increasingly mistrustful of the December Oscar-bait pictures anyway. Lisa used the phrase "cap-Q Quality," which sums up the year-end movie parade nicely. Just show me something that's alive! It can even be bad in some way. Hell, it can be bad in a lot of ways. Just make sure it's not DOA.

Regarding The Dark Knight: Since I've already written at length on it elsewhere, I'll be brief here, but I don't find it visually dazzling or inventive—just murky. And I find Nolan's images (even the ostensibly dazzling ones) disconnected from one another and from any meaningful, overarching whole. I'm baffled that a filmmaker who claims to love Hitchcock would be so clueless about visual storytelling: Nolan relies on a lot of expository dialogue to explain what's going on, which I guess is a good thing, because I wouldn't want to have to figure out what this thing is about based solely on the visuals or the editing. I found watching Heath Ledger's performance very sad: It's a good performance, not a great one (it's repetitive, building or stretching toward nothing), and I'm sorry he's not around to give us some better ones, as I'm sure he would have. I fail to find any political or even emotional resonance or depth in the whole exercise. I know lots of people have made a case for it as a "dark movie for these dark times," but I'm just not buying it. I think there's far more mournfulness about the state of our country (pre-Obama, that is) in Iron Man—but maybe that's just because Robert Downey Jr.'s face is capable of so much subtlety and warmth. He makes anxiety look like a state of grace.

And, you know, R.D. Jr. is just alive. There's that word again. Jessica, you hit on something when you mentioned David Ansen's reflection on Young@Heart and how much it got to him. Just give me something that makes me want to reach out toward the screen, toward some kind of warmth or intelligence. I'm not interested, as a critic or a moviegoer, in being witness to some filmmaker's display of alleged tastefulness and talent. Talent, by itself, is boring. And don't even get me started on tastefulness!

Not every movie we go to see is beautifully structured or carefully written. Then again, plenty of movies that are nicely structured and well-written are just dead on the screen. (As Lisa mentioned, The Reader is one of the chief offenders in this category. Ditto Revolutionary Road, for me, at least.) Over and over again, I find myself reaching out toward movies that are flawed but that at least manage to light a spark. Often, for me, that spark is lit by actors. But sometimes I find it in so-called dumb comedies, too. Actually, I find that many "dumb" comedies are smarter than movies that are purportedly serious.

And a smart comedy—better still. I'm sure it's harder to make a good comedy than it is to make an earnest snooze like The Reader. In 2008, I loved David Koepp's romantic comedy Ghost Town, partly because it's beautifully shaped and written and also because I love the way these three very different performers, with very different rhythms—Ricky Gervais, Téa Leoni and Greg Kinnear—play off one another. To me, if you create that kind of stage for actors to play on, and they stretch to meet the challenge—bliss!

I also loved, as I know some of you did, The House Bunny, so I'm going to lay that one out on the table for all of you like a delectable piece of lettuce. And hippety-hopping around toward another subject, Jeannette, your question about why there aren't more women film critics is one I've thought about a lot, as I'm sure you guys have. I'm going to wait to tackle that one, but I know we'll all have something to say about it.

All this talk about what's alive and what's not, on-screen, is bringing me back to that dread subject: plastic surgery. But that, too, is going to have to wait until a later post. Right now, I'm going to go move my face—just because I can!

SZ

Jeannette Catsoulis writes about film for the New York Times, Reverse Shot, and Las Vegas CityLife. Lisa Schwarzbaum is a movie critic at Entertainment Weekly. Dana Stevens is Slate's movie critic. Jessica Winter is the film critic and senior editor at O, the Oprah MagazineStephanie Zacharek is a senior writer and film critic for Salon.

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