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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Manohla Dargis: The critic as movie killer

Before Manohla Dargis joined the New York Times, she was, along with Kenny Turan, our top critic at the Los Angeles Times. Particularly during awards season, I'd often get calls from the marketing chief at a specialty division who was releasing a movie with high Oscar hopes. The question was always the same: Who's reviewing the movie? Of course, that was code for: Please, God, tell us it's not Manohla.

It's an open secret in indie Hollywood that no one wants Manohla Dargis to review their movie, fearing that the outspoken critic will tear their film limb from limb. It's the ultimate backhanded compliment, since what they really fear is Manohla's persuasiveness -- that she'll write a review whose combination of vitriolic snarkiness and intellectual heft will actually persuade high-brow moviegoers to drop the film from their must-see list. (To be fair, she can be equally passionate about films she loves; for example, "Synecdoche, New York," or anything by David Lynch.) The production chief of one indie studio once was so infuriated by a string of negative Dargis reviews that he vowed to keep Manohla away from all of his future screenings, even if that meant stopping all our critics from seeing his movies. I told him it was a bad idea, since it would simply make Manohla a hero to critics everywhere, further increasing her clout. When he was still running Miramax, Harvey Weinstein, stung by Manohla's lash on any number of reviews, begged me to persuade her to have lunch with him; Harvey no doubt thought he could influence her with his considerable charm. She politely refused.

Laetbigpicturereader1210 I was reminded of all this reading Manohla's review today of "The Reader," the Stephen Daldry film that stars Kate Winslet as a former concentration camp guard who has an affair with a teen boy in 1950s Germany. The movie was the Weinstein Co.'s one true hope to contend in the Oscar race, a hope that seems dashed by the early reviews, which run the gamut from faint praise (Variety's Todd McCarthy and Newsweek's David Ansen) to mild disapproval (the New Yorker's Anthony Lane) to total damnation, as in Manohla's review, which manages to trash the film's source material, Bernhard Schlink's much-praised novel ("Mr. Schlink's unpersuasive bid at generational soul-seeking") as well as the film itself, which she says "monumentalizes every trembling lip and fluttering eyelash, turning human gestures into Kodak moments."

I'm not saying Manohla is wrong or unfair: "The Reader" is clearly flawed in many ways, and Manohla is, as always, expert in picking the scabs from the film's weak spots. (It opens in L.A. this month.) But some critics clean the knife before they stick it in, as with Lane, who eases the pain of his pans with sly humor, dismissing "The Reader" as a "woefully polite, not to say British, take on a foreign horror." Manohla is straight, no chaser: "You have to wonder who, exactly, wants or perhaps needs to see another movie about the Holocaust that embalms its horrors with artfully spilled tears and asks us to pity a death-camp guard."

What causes so much fear and loathing in the filmmaking community about Manohla's work as a critic isn't her blunt appraisals but her seeming lack of empathy for the challenge of tackling difficult material. No one blinks an eye when a critic eviscerates a dumb summer comedy -- that's a fair target. It's the filmmakers who've aimed high and been brought to their knees by a Dargis pan who feel as if they've been gored for sport. You might say Manohla occupies a unique perch: She's the critic you love to read, just as long as you're not reading about your movie.

Photo: Kate Winslet and David Kross in "The Reader." Credit: The Weinstein Co.

 
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Dargis does not speak with forked tongue. It's not her job to be empathetic "to the challenge of tackling difficult material", as you suggest. It's not her job to be sympathetic to effort or intent. It's her job, which she does more honestly and with more literary flair than any American critic writing today, to tell the truth, as she sees it, about the final work, the films she reviews. She is the great critic of our time. Which is why so many tremble in fear. As they should.

And is she really so wrong about The Reader? When she asks, "You have to wonder who, exactly, wants or perhaps needs to see another movie about the Holocaust that embalms its horrors with artfully spilled tears and asks us to pity a death-camp guard."

Isn't that THE question to ask about this film?

She's the best in the business, not politically correct and a damn fine writer. I would love it if she got into other areas of writing (a la Frank Rich) because I think she has unique way of looking at things and expressing herself.

Manohla is bad for movie and bad for the business. Her reviews say more about her own sour existence than they do about the movies she is writing about. The Reader is a wonderfully moving and highly emotional film which brought me to my knees. She's clearly overly jaded and out to sabotage the true creative and talented people out there. The day she calls it quits or takes the buyout is the day I organize a parade. Really, the irony is that the Times thinks it doesn't affect anything. Well, I know that every time I plan an ad buy, I plan it, then cut the size in the NY Times by a size. My own small way of saying I don't support this. Manohla is the worst. It's like she hates happiness, hates America, hates American movies, hates Hollywood, hates a good time, hates entertainment, hates pleasure should I keep going? Really, by what legitimate criteria is she taking these ultra extreme positions and is such a methodology even valid or relevant? I just cancelled my Times subscription. Congrats Manohla...your name is high on the hammer driving more nails in the NY Times coffin.

She was horrible when she was with the LA Weekly and LA Times, and is equally horrible now with the NY Times.

At least she's consistent.

Manohla Dargis is a fine, nuanced critic with a passion for movies strong enough to be a lifeforce of its own. And when publicists and filmmakers fear her reviews, it is because they know their products are flawed, almost fatally so, and that she is one of the few critics brave enough to tell the truth. A bad film about the Holocaust is still a bad film. A great film about a boy who loses a nickel down a grate is still a great film, no matter how trivial the subject.

And if Mr. Schlink's novel was well-praised, it was certainly not by critics as discerning as Ms. Dargis: It was a slender, instructive novella written for teenagers that was repackaged as an Uplifting Read, championed by Oprah and piled high in the coveted spot by the cash register in bookstores nationwide . This is not an adaptation of Thomas Bernhard, W.G. Sebald or even William Styron we're talking about here - The Reader is as broadly drawn as an inspirational Readers Digest story and about as challenging to read.

Well, Dargis is a great critic and, as you point out, is very capable at finding and articulating which of those often subtle elements of a film fail and why they do so. Something, I suspect, the average viewer senses but cannot pin down. Certainly, not as artfully and decisively as she can.

I haven't seen The Reader so it's difficult to comment on her review. But I have read the book and to know that the film has been done in that bland idiom of British/euro-vagueness English, I really don't see how you can make it work. The film, a tough challenged to take on no doubt, stood its best chance at success had it been done as a German language film. To take the language away from it, I think creates this near-farcical alternative universe which trivializes the holocaust. The crime was not committed by Germans speaking British English with heavy accents. It was committed by Germans speaking German.

More kudos to Manohla Dargis. She is the kind of critic that the art of cinema needs. I don't necessarily always agree with her film reviews but her direct approach and honesty on her film criticisms is the one that always draws me to her film reviews.

We need more fearless movie critics like her.

"The challenge of tackling difficult material" is knowing when not to tackle it at all. Manohla's review actually echoes A.O. Scott's theories about the Oscar-Friendly Feel-Good Holocaust Movie, which he wrote about at length a couple weeks ago in the NY Times.

Did the Weinsteins pay you to write this blog?

She is hardly the only film critic out there who has no practical understanding of how movies are made.

I think she doesn't really love movies. Some critics, no matter how tough (the late Pauline Kael comes to mind) thoroughly enjoy movies, even flawed opens. But Dargis enjoys being critical more than anything else, which might win prizes, but hardly makes readers trust her.

 
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