David Edelstein

David Edelstein is a film critic for New York magazine and for NPR's Fresh Air, and an occasional commentator on film for CBS Sunday Morning. He has also written film criticism for the Village Voice, The New York Post, and Rolling Stone, and is a frequent contributor to the New York Times' Arts & Leisure section.

A member of the National Society of Film Critics, he is the author of the play Blaming Mom, and the co-author of Shooting to Kill (with producer Christine Vachon).

The actor Michael B. Jordan gives a major performance in Ryan Coogler's debut film, Fruitvale Station. He plays 22-year-old Oscar Grant, who was shot in a run-in with cops at an Oakland, Calif., train stop in the early hours of 2009. The film opens with cellphone footage of the actual event, so you know what's coming. But the Oscar you meet on the last day of 2008 remains a man, not a martyr.

We're at the point when Johnny Depp's dumbest whims can lead to movies costing $200 million. I imagine Depp lying in a hammock on his private island and saying, "I've always wanted to play Barnabas Collins in Dark Shadows!" and it's done. Then he says, "I've always wanted to do The Lone Ranger — but as Tonto!" and it, too, gets the green light.

The decade of the 1980s — when major corporations made their presence more felt in Hollywood — was for all kinds of reasons a low point in American moviegoing. But two beacons abroad, Pedro Almodovar and Neil Jordan, reminded us with movies like Law of Desire, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and Mona Lisa how films could be personal and still reach a large (or large-ish) audience.

Thirty years later, we have Almodovar's I'm So Excited and Jordan's Byzantium — and these directors are still shining a light.

One word sums up my reaction to Joss Whedon's film of Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing: Huzzah!

Here is the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer — and the director of The Avengers — working with American TV actors who have little or no training in verse-speaking. Who could have predicted such a team would produce the best of all filmed Shakespeare comedies?

The second collaboration between writer-director Zal Batmanglij and actress and co-writer Brit Marling is called The East, which happens to be the name of the movie's anti-corporate terrorist cult. Marling plays Sarah, an agent who infiltrates the group. She doesn't work for the FBI. Her employer is a private security and intelligence firm run by the sleek, profit-oriented Sharon, played by Patricia Clarkson. Its clients are Big Pharma, Big Oil, or Big Rich Any Corporation that, according to the group The East, poisons the world and everyone in it.

Lately I've been re-watching vintage Truffaut movies, and I've been struck by the resurgent influence on American independent films of the French New Wave of the late '50s and '60s.

The Truffaut borrowings are fairly explicit in Noah Baumbach's Frances Ha, while Richard Linklater's Before Midnight takes its cues from Eric Rohmer's gentle but expansive talkfests. That's not a criticism: With mainstream movies seeming ever more machine-tooled nowadays, the impulse to reach back to an age of free-form filmmaking feels especially liberating.

Before I tell you about J.J. Abrams' second Star Trek film, with its youngish new Starship Enterprise crew, let me say that just because I've seen every episode of the original Star Trek and of The Next Generation, and most of the spinoff series, and every movie, I'm not a Trekkie — meaning someone who goes to conventions or speaks Klingon or greets people with a Vulcan salute.

The third time might be the charm for some things, but the number three after a movie title is typically shorthand for a deal with the devil.

The studio thinks there's more money to be squeezed from a particular property, and voila: Spider-Man 3, Superman III, The Godfather — God help us — Part III. OK, The Godfather's a special case. Most other threes, though, are what happens when a too-thin plot meets a too-fat budget.

Studios are putting most of their eggs in $100 million baskets these days, even as American independent filmmakers go hungry from lack of mainstream attention. But two of my favorite American indie writer-directors, Jeff Nichols and Ramin Bahrani, have new films with bigger stars than they've had before — films they hope will break through to wider audiences. The results, at least artistically, are impressive.

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Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

The voiceovers from Terrence Malick's To the Wonder, which has a lot of them, are intoned on the soundtrack while the characters stare into sunrises or sunsets — whenever the light is right, what cinematographers call, "the magic hour." This film and Malick's last, The Tree of Life, suggest that he's evolved into a blend of director and Christian minister: These are psalms writ on film.

Mental is madder than madcap. I heard one critic sniff, "It's kind of broad" — and, Your Honor, the defense agrees! But if broad means "unsubtle," it doesn't have to mean "unreal." Mental makes most other movies seem boringly, misleadingly sane.

What surprises me about the ongoing discussion of violence in cinema and whether it influences violence in the real world is how people fail to engage with the male fantasy behind these films. There's a template for them, a theme; it hinges on violation and vengeance. A seminal action picture of the last 50 years is 1988's Die Hard, in which a lone male cop operates behind the scenes after an ingeniously orchestrated foreign attack on American soil. He's symbolically emasculated — he has no gun or even shoes, his wife is now going by her maiden name.

In the '60s, some fervent rock groupies formed a band called the GTOs — short for "Girls Together Outrageously" — and while it didn't last, the name captures the impulse behind stories in which women chafe against the male-centric society that pulls their strings. This week you can see a girls-together-outrageously triple bill: Spring Breakers, Ginger & Rosa and Beyond the Hills.

Oz the Great and Powerful. Say that name aloud and you will smile, I guarantee you: It will conjure up so many images, characters, actors, songs. Then hold that smile as long as you can, because you won't be doing much smiling at the movie called Oz the Great and Powerful, the so-called "prequel" to The Wizard of Oz from Disney Studios.

Stoker has a ripely decadent, creepy-crawly feel that would have gotten under my skin if the tone weren't so arch and the people so ghoulishly remote. It's like a bad Strindberg play with added splatter. But director Park Chan-wook certainly works to make you uncomfortable. Take the early shot in which the teenage girl protagonist, India Stoker, played by Mia Wasikowska, sits in a meadow and muses in voiceover on the subject of free will versus destiny. She says, "Just as a flower doesn't choose its color, so we don't choose what we are going to be" — while draining a blister.

In the early '80s, Italy's Taviani brothers, Paolo and Vittorio, made one of the true modern masterpieces, The Night of the Shooting Stars. Set in the last days of World War II, when Germans laid mines all over Tuscan villages and Fascists loyal to Mussolini killed their own countrymen, it was a very cruel film.

The Oscar-nominated documentary The Gatekeepers centers on Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, but from an unusual vantage — not the Palestinians or Israelis on the ground, but six men at the pinnacle of the country's security apparatus: the former heads of the security agency Shin Bet.

I was weaned on horror movies and love them inordinately, but the genre has gone to the dogs — and to the muscle-bound werewolves, hormonal vampires, flesh-eating zombies, machete-wielding psychos, etc. It's also depressing how most modern horror pictures have unhappy nihilist endings in which everyone dies and the demons pop back up, unvanquished — partly because studios think happy endings are too soft, but mostly because they need their monsters for so-called franchises.

Director Ang Lee has a surprising affinity for the Indian hero of Life of Pi — that's his name, Pi, and he's seen at several ages but principally as a 17-year-old boy adrift on a lifeboat in the South Pacific. He's the lone survivor of a shipwreck that killed the crew, his family and a variety of zoo animals his father was transporting to North America for sale.

Actually, Pi is the lone human survivor. He shares his boat and its dwindling food supplies with a man-eating Bengal tiger.

The best thing about David O. Russell is that he cultivates his disequilibrium. In Silver Linings Playbook, his hero is disturbed and his heroine possibly more so, and his other characters have a grip on reality that is only marginally more secure. Russell might have made them seem the dreaded "q" word — quirky — and OK, he does, a bit, at the end, which broadly conforms to the rom-com template. But until then, Bradley Cooper's Pat Solatano is someone you'd be less likely to dream about than get a restraining order against.

Two icons, Abraham Lincoln and James Bond, make triumphant appearances this week in movies with more in common than you'd expect. True, Lincoln is a titan of history, liberator of slaves, and as such an adversary of Western colonialism, while 007 is an outlandish stereotype embodying white male Western authoritarian power. But the makers of these films do a sterling job of testing their respective subjects in front of our eyes — before pronouncing them fit to carry on in our collective imagination.

First I need to talk about the book, because it's not as if Cloud Atlas the movie came from nowhere — and if you think it's only the movie you want to know about, I think you need a context for what's onscreen.

Author David Mitchell writes exquisite pastiches, and Cloud Atlas is in the form of six distinct and enthralling novellas set in six different eras with six different literary styles.

In 1983, Berkeley poet and journalist Mark O'Brien wrote an article about sexual surrogates — women and men trained to help people with disabilities learn to use their bodies to give themselves and others erotic pleasure.

For O'Brien, the subject wasn't academic. After a bout of childhood polio, he had spent much of his life in an iron lung. He could talk, and tap out words on a typewriter holding a stick in his mouth. He could feel things below the neck. But he couldn't move his muscles.

Ben Affleck's Argo is two-two-TWO movies in one, and while neither is especially original, by merging them Affleck pulls off a coup. First, he gives you espionage with the You Are There zing of a documentary. Then he serves up broad showbiz satire. For his final feat, he blends the two into a pulse-pounding nail-biter of a climax. And this all really happened. Most of it. Except for that climax.

I adore time-travel pictures like Looper no matter how idiotic, especially when they feature a Love That Transcends Time. I love Somewhere in Time with Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour, The Time Traveler's Wife, even The Lake House with Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock in different years sending letters through a magic mailbox. So terrible. So good. See, everyone wants to correct mistakes in hindsight, and it's the one thing we cannot do. Except vicariously, in movies.

The hero of both the novel and the film The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a high school freshman loner named Charlie whose best friend committed suicide the previous spring. He's on psychiatric meds, lots of them, and still has blackouts and mysterious visions of a doting aunt who died when he was 7.

Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master is both feverish and glacial. The vibe is chilly, but the central character is an unholy mess — and his rage saturates every frame. He's a World War II South Pacific vet named Freddie Quell, played by Joaquin Phoenix to the hilt — the hilt above the hilt. We meet him at war's end on a tropical beach where he and other soldiers seek sexual relief atop the figure of a woman made out of sand.

Long before Bridesmaids convinced studio executives that a raunchy, female-centric comedy could find a huge audience, Leslye Headland was busy adapting her play Bachelorette into a movie. So this isn't a copycat rom-com, but the themes do overlap. Each film turns on a female rivalry: In Bridesmaids, it's between the maid of honor, Kristen Wiig, and the bride's rich friend, played by Rose Byrne. In Bachelorette, the rivalry is more complicated, more ... ugly. It's between the three, 30-ish, unmarried central characters and the bride.

The last time my 14-year-old daughter saw me and my wife being affectionate, she said, "Ewwww, old people kissing." Now, I'm not so old — barely half a century. But let's be frank. My daughter's no different from many people whose objects of fantasy are young and freakishly fit. So even a mild, cutesy little comedy like Hope Springs about two sexagenarians trying to have sex can seem shocking, even transgressive.

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