If “Rainer on Film” were simply a compendium of the movie reviews Peter Rainer has written over the last three decades, it would be no more or less worth reading than any film critic that you admire or dislike. There are a lot of reviews in the book, but there are also quirky overviews on the careers of important directors and stars.
Of Terence Malick: “Now that Stanley Kubrick has passed on, Malick is the undisputed recluse/auteur of the film business, the director that the most movie people would most like to work with, if only they could find him.” Of Robert Altman: “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 a terrible sense of aloneness. In film after film, from “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” and “The Long Goodbye” to “Nashville” and “Short Cuts,” the human tumult masks a solitude.”
Since Rainer, who is currently president of the National Society of Film Critics and film critic for “The Christian Science Monitor,” writes elegant prose, dipping into his sentences is always fun even when you might argue with his conclusions. He finds “Zero Dark Thirty”” infuriating” by “turning the hunt for bin Laden into a glorified police procedural” and deposits the movie in his “overrated” bin. “Fight Club” is also in that bin. “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)."
In his underrated, or, as he titles it, “underseen” bin is one of my favorite films, “Babe: Pig in the City.” Rainer argues that the dark and uncommercial sequel to the sunlit and charming “Babe,” about a pig who wanted to be a sheepdog, is as good as “Babe” and perhaps even better. Chased by a pit bull “with “as much vroom as anything in ‘Mad Max,’” “Babe doesn’t comprehend why animals – or people – self-destructively play out their natures. The pit bull clues him in: ‘I have a professional obligation to be malicious.’ And yet, when Babe’s generosity redeems his attacker, it’s as if all of evolution had suddenly been overruled…Kids barred from this movie by wary parents are missing out on a helluva role model.”
However, the bulk of the book does consist of (sometimes outdated) reviews. Although Rainer often tries to bring a career up to date with a postscript, the technique doesn’t always work. It is still interesting to read his thoughts about “Night of the Hunter” (1955) and such other “Masterpieces” as “Au Revoir, Les Enfants,” “Blue Velvet” and the work of Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami. It is less interesting to read about less interesting films. But there is often a nugget. On film noir, for example, you will find that they “take place in an L.A. of the mind” no matter the actual city in which they are set.
Rainer devotes an entire chapter to Steven Spielberg. “Spielberg’s genius was not simply to think like his audience – any good hack can do that – but to be his audience. 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.”
“Rainer on Film” has an excellent index. Dip into it as you would a bowl of mixed nuts, picking out the people and films that intrigue you.
"Rainer on Film" on-sale date is June 1.