Excerpt from his review of “The Amazing Spider-Man”, the New Yorker, 7/2012
When someone reboots a film franchise, as the makers of “The Amazing Spider-Man” have done, what are we meant to think of the original boot? The first “Spider-Man” came out in 2002, followed by its obligatory sequels in 2004 and 2007. If you are a twenty-year-old male of unvarnished social aptitude, those movies will seem like much-loved classics that have eaten up half your lifetime. They beg to be interpreted anew, just as Shakespeare’s history plays should be freshly staged by every generation. For those of us who are lavishly cobwebbed with time, however, the notion of yet another Spider-Man saga, this soon, does seem hasty, and I wish that the good people—or, at any rate, the patent lawyers—at Marvel Comics could at least have taken the opportunity to elide the intensely annoying hyphen in the title. Or does merely suggesting such a change make me a total ass-hole?
Complete Review of “A Mighty Heart”, the New Yorker, 6/2007
How do you solve a problem like Angelina? Ms. Jolie is now more of a brand than a person, and she comes in six flavors:
1. The celebrity. Angelina Jolie is so famous that when she looks in the mirror her reflection asks for an autograph. The only publication in this country yet to feature her on its cover is The American Numismatic Magazine, and even that will change the moment she bends down to pick up a nickel.
2. The sexpot. In this she is unchallenged, and yet her timing is off by fifty years. When it comes to channelling her carnal appeal, no current film director has a clue; the guy she needs is Frank Tashlin, who guided Jayne Mansfield through “The Girl Can’t Help It” (1956) and “Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?” (1957), and whose eyeballs, if confronted with Jolie in the flesh, would pop out on cartoon springs and bob around.
3. The Brad handler. She took one look at the world’s most widely desired man and scooped him up with no more ado than a Parisian grande dame tucking a Chihuahua into her clutch bag.
4. The mother. Official estimates as to how many children Jolie now possesses, and from how many continents, change on a weekly basis. When not giving birth herself, she likes to order in. How this has affected Mr. Pitt is unclear, but his expression is sometimes that of a man who stepped out to hail a cab and got run over by a fleet of trucks.
5. The world saver. Jolie is a Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Her father, Jon Voight, told the Biography Channel that “she’s developed into one of our great humanitarians.” This was clearly on the minds of political leaders when they met Jolie at a summit of the World Economic Forum in Davos two years ago. Half of them offered their entire foreign-aid budget for a chance to fetch her a mai tai.
6. Oh yes, the actress. This last talent, so often neglected, is displayed in her new film, “A Mighty Heart,” and without it the legend of Angelina Jolie would be little more than a vaporous joke.
The movie, directed by Michael Winterbottom, lies about as far from the trials of Lara Croft as is cinematically possible. Jolie plays Mariane Pearl, the wife of Daniel Pearl (Dan Futterman), a correspondent for the Wall Street Journal who in 2002 was kidnapped and beheaded in Karachi, Pakistan. The story begins on the day of his disappearance; as the horrors unfurl, we see Mariane replaying in her mind the moment when she bade her husband farewell—a wave and a smile, as he climbed into a cab. He was due to interview a Muslim cleric named Sheikh Gilani, but the arrangement was a trap.
Once Pearl has vanished, we follow the threads of rumor and report from the viewpoint of his wife, a cluster of friends, and the local police. The result, like many of Winterbottom’s films, lies an inch short of disarray; we can keep pace with the investigation, but only just, and that sense of splintering honors the unpredictability of the setting. We hurtle from the tracking down of taxi-drivers to the tracing of cell-phone calls and nocturnal raids on the homes of suspects; such momentum is undeniably but unpleasantly exciting, because we already know the outcome. However diligent the authorities’ chase against the clock, the clock will win. Promising leads hit a wall; when Mariane gets to see Pakistan’s Interior Minister, he blames the Indian intelligence services for having set up the abduction. Add the aggressive questioning of Daniel’s female colleague, Asra (Archie Panjabi), who happens to be Indian, and you get an itchy demonstration of regional mistrust.
Stronger still than the encroaching panic, however, is Mariane’s determination not to cave in to it. Those who saw her being interviewed at the time were struck by her preternatural serenity; her book, also called “A Mighty Heart” (2003), is Winterbottom’s principal source, although her title may be too noble for his manner—the dressed-down, on-the-fly approach that lends even his more formal endeavors, like “Jude” (1996) and “Code 46” (2003), an air of documentary. He is the very model of a modern moral filmmaker: not unromantic, exactly, and too impassioned for the scowls of cynicism, but baffled and perhaps a little bored by the traditional forms of romance. When his loving couples cling together—as they did, stickily, for “9 Songs” (2004)—Winterbottom loses interest. When they are yanked apart, as in “A Mighty Heart,” his own heart quickens its beat.
Mariane is French-speaking, with a Cuban mother, and Jolie is equipped with corkscrewed hair, tinted skin, and murmuring accent. We brace ourselves for a star turn, a hundred minutes of vanity project, but here’s the thing: it never happens. Jolie slips into the part, ducks in and out of the action, and generally plays second string to the onrush of events. Blessed with the world’s most recognizable mouth, she confines herself to a single, skeptical pout, as Mariane is reassured that “no one would ever want to hurt Danny.” Not so: he is an American Jew investigating Muslim extremists, and, as his wife knows, that makes him a marked man.
Only once does Mariane crack. Informed of her husband’s death and of its savage circumstances, she goes to her room, crouches over, and keens. It could be the howl from a Greek tragedy, except that our heroine is not disporting herself on a stage, majestic in her grief, but filmed from so close that you can count the knobs of vertebrae at the top of her spine. By this time she is heavily pregnant, and her screams are a terrible parody of birth pangs—an echo that Winterbottom makes explicit, without needing to, in the closing scenes. This hasty, high-intensity, barely consolable film is just the kind of tale on which he thrives—and, more surprisingly, on which Jolie will come to depend if she wants to keep her head above the tides of madness in which, partly on her own initiative, she has chosen to float. Will success spoil Angelina Jolie? Not yet. Can she help it? Yes, she can.
Complete Review of “Nancy Drew”, the New Yorker, 6/2007
“Aunt Julia! Aunt Julia!” cried the girl in the long socks and the penny loafers. Her name was Emma Roberts, and she was sixteen.
“Why, what is it?” exclaimed Aunt Julia, a pretty woman who would not give her age. She was over by the window of the living room, rearranging her photographs of disastrous fiancés.
“I have finished with Nancy Drew,” replied Emma disappointedly.
“My goodness! Well, sometimes these things are not meant to last,” sighed her aunt.
“Don’t be silly!” corrected the girl. “Nancy is not a person. She is a fictional construct, created in 1930 by Carolyn Keene, herself a pseudonym under whom simply tons of different yet equally useless writers have taken shelter. Don’t you remember? I went off to play Miss Drew in the new movie. I was encouraged to do so by the example of my father, Eric, himself an actor, though never in the same wage bracket as you, his more famous sister. Not that he minded!” she added with a silvery laugh.
Aunt Julia smiled, something she seldom did in public for less than twenty million dollars.
“And tell me, what was it like?”
“It was splendid,” replied Emma, pausing to adjust the headband on her fine reddish hair. “The story begins in River Heights, a town full of delightful white people. I am motherless and my father is a lawyer, so both of us are rather sad! For a treat we move to Los Angeles, where the girls at my new school say I remind them of Martha Stewart. They are so ‘right on,’ it really is a joy!”
“And what happens next?” asked Emma’s aunt, her excitement mounting.
“Well, the house the Drews are renting once belonged to a movie star—you know, one of the super-old ones.”
“Like Lana Turner?”
“Skip it. Who plays the part of the actress?”
“The beautiful Miss Laura Elena Harring. After some ace detective work, I discovered that she was in a film called ‘Mulholland Drive,’ which dealt with similar material. Isn’t that coincidence just a little too suspicious? And the plot leads Nancy to a resort by the name of Twin Palms. Another clue! To sum up, a friend of mine said the film was like Lynch without the lesbians or the dwarves. What are lesbians, Aunt? Are they friends of Snow White’s, too?”
“More than you will ever know, dear.”
“Oh, Aunt Julia, come to the première, please do. I shall take a tray of cupcakes.”
“I—I—” Her aunt’s voice faltered.
“Why, what is it?”
“I doubt if any female over the age of twelve would get much pleasure from the film,” she hazarded.
Emma giggled. “Oh, Aunt Julia, you may be old, but you’re not that old. Not just yet!”
Her aunt’s hand crept toward the heavy glass paperweight that stood on the side table next to a portrait of Lyle Lovett, which, while in soft focus, was not quite soft enough. What was she thinking? Finally, she spoke:
“Oh, I’m sure the film will do as well as it deserves!”