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‘Rainer on Film’ – Sharp opinions propel critic’s 30-year collection of reviews, essays

Dennis King Published: November 24, 2013
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Any film critic worth reading will likely infuriate you as often as he intrigues you. It’s passionate opinion as much as informed insight that distinguishes the best of the burgeoning reviewer ranks.

Peter Rainer is one of the film critics that matter, and his recent collection of essays and reviews, “Rainer on Film” (Santa Monica Press, $24.95), amply demonstrates why.  The current film critic of the Christian Science Monitor, he serves as president of the National Society of Film Critics and has been a Pulitzer Prize finalist for criticism and winner of the National Entertainment Journalism Award for Best Online Entertainment Critic.

In “Rainer on Film” (sporting the wordy subtitle “Thirty Years of Film Writing in a Turbulent and Transformative Era”), the writer has cherry-picked some of his best reviews, most insightful profiles and most provocative think pieces from three eventful decades of duty on the movie beat.

The book is arranged thematically with chapters covering “Overrated,” “Underseen,” “Some Masterpieces,” “Issues (Mostly Hot Button),” “Comedies (Intentional and Unintentional)” and so on.

All of Rainer’s writing is fluid and succinct, and his opinions are strongly held and forcefully stated. But, like all good critics, he brings a sharply independent, somewhat maverick, perspective to his take on films.

For instance, two high-profile films of recent years inspired these strong reactions: of “Zero Dark Thirty,” Rainer found himself infuriated that the movie “turned the hunt for (Osama) bin Laden into a glorified police procedural.” Of David Fincher’s widely praised “Fight Club,” the critic notes, “Intended as a great big howl of a movie, it comes closer to being a mammoth snit fit – a snit fit with pretensions (the worst kind).’

While reading collections of old reviews might not be everyone’s idea of fun, Rainer’s still seem to pack a punch. But the collection’s best revelations come from his offbeat judgments in extended think pieces (such as his passionate argument that “Babe: Pig in the City” is a sequel that surpassed the original “Babe” and stands as one of the great “underseen” movies of our time) and his insights into the work of our greatest filmmakers.

Of the famously dyspeptic Robert Altman, he writes: “He is renowned for the buzzing expansiveness of his stories, the crisscrossed plots and people, but what strikes home most of all in this sprawl is the terrible sense of aloneness.” And of the reclusive Terrence Malick, he observes: “Now that Stanley Kubrick has passed on, Malick is the undisputed recluse/auteur of the film business, the director that most movie people would most like to work with, if only they could find him.”

And Rainer displays a particularly expansive insight into the work of Steven Spielberg (to whom he devotes an entire chapter). “Spielberg’s genius was not simply to think like his audience – any good hack can do that – but to be his audience,” he writes. “His aesthetic instincts and his commercial instincts were twinned, and not in a calculating way either – at least not until ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark,’ which is when his large-scale entertainments, followed by the two ‘Indiana Jones’ sequels and the ‘Jurassic Park’ movies, turned into corporate theme parks themselves.”

Thumbs up for Rainer’s intelligent, challenging collection.

- Dennis King