From the New Yorker film critic, a collection of critical essays that’s more than a miscellaneous roundup.
Denby (Snark, 2009, etc.) has selected only pieces from the magazine that flesh out his premise that mainstream American films today consist for the most part of obscenely expensive franchises, usually centered on comic-book figures, that have abandoned any attempt to interest adults with the visual grammar with which movies have told stories and developed characters for more than a century. “Conglomerate Aesthetics,” a 2001 essay published for the first time here, dissects the results: movies in which “content becomes incidental, even disposable,” that have more in common with TV commercials and music videos than the classic Hollywood cinema Denby lovingly (but not blindly) celebrates in comparison. He’s not incapable of enjoying contemporary films, however. “Romantic Comedy Gets Knocked Up” is a smart and generally positive appraisal of the Judd Apatow school of moviemaking, and the previously unpublished “Chick Flicks” gives a critically dissed genre its due (in both cases, with some feminist caveats). In this context, the individual reviews, ranging from Avatar to Winter’s Bone, and think pieces such as “Pirates on the iPod” (a glum look at the diminution of film-watching), have additional bite and significance. Among Denby’s particular strengths are an impressive ability to understand and convey the way directors employ spatial relations to make artistic points and a concern for the moral and social implications of film—the belief that “the nation’s soul was on trial in its movies” that he ascribes to the two predecessors who most influenced him: James Agee and Pauline Kael. Each gets an acute, appreciative assessment; Kael, a mentor who later told Denby “you’re too restless to be a writer,” receives a particularly shrewd and surprisingly balanced profile.
A must for movie lovers and more proof that Denby’s gifts are better displayed in a full-length text than in a short review.