I’m not sure which New Yorker film critic it’s fashionable to dislike now, but David Denby has a remarkably good column in the January 4 issue, where he reviews two films you may have heard about, Avatar and the latest Sherlock Holmes (the former has been getting good press at McDonald’s). Denby is always a capable critic, but this piece caught me for some reason.
Reflecting on Avatar, Denby quickly and humanely underscores its annoying aspects–the corny idealization of aboriginal culture, the irony of a quarter-billion-dollar techno-thriller being about the evils of technology–then calmly celebrates the galvanic, sensuous accomplishment of the production, the way it does what blockbusters are supposed to do: entertain lots of different people a lot for a couple hours. He slips in some Deleuze–“this world is as much a vertical experience as a horizontal one, and the many parts of it cohere and flow together. The movie is a blissful fantasy of a completely organic life”–and tempers his philosophical reservations with unashamed popcorn joy:
Well, actually, life among the Na’vi [the spear-wielding, blue good guys], for all its physical glories, looks a little dull. True, there’s no reality TV or fast food, but there’s no tennis or Raymond Chandler or Ella Fitzgerald, either. But let’s not dwell on the sentimentality of Cameron’s notion of aboriginal life–the movie is striking enough to make it irrelevant . . . The movie’s story may be a little trite, and the big battle at the end goes on forever, but what a show Cameron puts on!
Coming to the “hyperbolic” Holmes, Denby is at his sharpest when demonstrating how the visual characteristics of a film inform its narrative quality (or lack of that):
[Guy] Ritchie’s visual style, aided by the cinematographer Philippe Rousselot, is graphic-novel Victoriana [!]: there are steampunk interiors–iron-works and infernal machines with a retro-futuristic look–and dim laboratories in which everything looks rank. The movie is grimly overproduced and exhausting, an irritating, preposterous, but fitfully enjoyable work, in which every element has been inflated.
And he’s absolutely correct about another thing: Robert Downey, Jr. is probably the most charming weasel of an actor since Bogart. He makes any crap worth watching. Remember Iron Man? The Soloist? Ally McBeal?