The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Clash of Titans: Michael Moore vs. Manohla Dargis

September 17, 2009 |  2:12 pm

No American film critic wields a poison pen quite like the New York Times' Manohla Dargis, who is a brilliant stylist and savvy critical thinker even if she can often be counted on to fall in love with films that have utterly no commercial prospects outside of Manhattan's Angelika Film Center. It's a special treat to read Dargis' reports from film festivals, since they tend to read like sneak previews of her future reviews.

Moore_capitalism_poster_00 Dargis is famous for lowering the boom in her festival coverage, whether it was her 2007 dispatch from Sundance, in which she wrote off "Hounddog" as "overinflated rubbish," or her 2005 Sundance overview, in which she airily dismissed "Hustle & Flow" not just as "rubbish" but "precisely the kind of rubbish movie executives seek at Sundance." Dargis even called out a female studio executive who was in the audience, engaging in the cardinal sin of laughing at some of the movie's jokes that Dargis had determined to be especially crude and sexist.  

The common denominator with both of those movies was the huge amount of media uproar that had accompanied their arrival at the festival. Dargis clearly prefers underdog projects to media sensations, which is especially bad news for Michael Moore's "Capitalism: A Love Story," a new documentary that has already been riding a tsunami of media attention. Although Moore is a one-man marketing machine with an uncanny ability to court tumult, he still needs good reviews to broaden his audience beyond the die-hard liberals and issue-oriented activists who make up much of his core audience.

So Overture Films, which is releasing "Capitalism," had to be especially glum reading Dargis' Thursday essay, which made it pretty clear that the acerbic critic was underwhelmed by the movie. She described it as "a soft look at our hard times," adding ominously that "I will have more to say about [it] next Wednesday when it opens in New York and Los Angeles."

Dargis doesn't neccessarily review everything that she sees at a festival, but based on her brief comments from Toronto, I've compiled a brief scorecard of review predictions:

Giddy delights:

Werner Herzog's "Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans": "One of the best movies of his career.... Mr. Herzog take[s] you into a hell that leads straight to movie heaven."

Solid praise:

"Colony": "A satisfying addition to the blooming, buzzing field of social issue documentary."

"Collapse": "[An] elegantly structured if not unproblematic documentary."

"City of Life and Death": "A phantasmagoric vision in which decapitated heads swing from ropes like pendulums in front of mountains of rubble and billowing smoke." 

Grim tidings:

Don Roos' "Love and Other Impossible Pursuits": "Mr. Roos overworks his material into a sudsy pulp."

"Jennifer's Body": "A horror throwaway starring Megan Fox as a cannibalistic hottie."

"Life During Wartime": "Todd Solondz's hateful, would-be comedy."