Rainer on Film
Santa Monica Press

People often ask me what critics I read, if any. Of course, I’m not typical; I don’t consult reviews to help me decide whether or not to see a film. In most cases, I read reviews after I’ve already screened the picture in question. I’m interested in having a critic point out things I may have overlooked or illuminate aspects of the film I didn’t appreciate. Mostly, I’m interested in good writing, and this is where Peter Rainer excels. Currently reviewing for the Christian Science Monitor, his byline has appeared in many top publications  over the years. He’s just collected essays spanning some thirty years in a valuable book called Rainer on Film: Thirty Years of Film Writing in a Turbulent and Transformative Era (Santa Monica Press) and I’ve enjoyed browsing through them. 

Rainer is articulate and amusing, often laugh-out-loud funny. Perhaps I relate to him because we have similar backgrounds. He grew up in the New York City area watching Million Dollar Movie on TV and became a habitué of Manhattan’s treasured revival theaters. His first reviews were published in his college newspaper, and as he notes, “There was a marvelous urgency to all this, and my experience was not atypical. The big reason so many movie critics came out of my generation is that we all passed through the same ether.”

I also relate to this thought: “Years ago, when Hollywood churned out nonstop slews of teen pix—or was this only yesterday?—I questioned whether I was in the right profession. I questioned the movie medium itself. Where were the movies with the richness of, say, great novels? It was important for me to know that movies could be great in that way. If the essence of what I was writing about was, even from a purely entertainment level, negligible, then why bother? Then a friend said to me, ‘What about the films of Satyajit Ray?’ He could have named a dozen others, but I was already off and running, jolted back to sanity.”

Fortunately, Peter stuck to his guns. With this compilation of reviews and essays, he encourages us to revisit the highs and lows of the past thirty years—from the emergence of Curtis Hanson, Paul Thomas Anderson, and Spike Jonze to the quixotic careers of Marlon Brando and even Eddie Murphy. He devotes one chapter to films that are either overrated (Fight Club, Good Will Hunting) or underseen (Joe Gould’s Secret, A Cry in the Dark). It’s a trip down memory lane for anyone who’s followed movies and movie trends since the 1970s.

A friend of mine says the only thing better than watching movies is talking about them. I would apply the same truism to reading a good review or essay by someone as savvy as Peter Rainer.