Highlights from the week in criticism.
Dec. 5 1996 3:30 AM

Reviewers reviewed.


(posted Wednesday, Dec. 4)
Movie 101 Dalmatians (Disney). Reviews are mixed. Critics of Disney's live-action remake of the children's classic are calling the film derivative, and not just of the 1961 cartoon original. "The movie's last act is dominated by two much-abused bad guys who seem ripped off from Home Alone," complains Roger Ebert in the Chicago Sun-Times. (Dalmations was written by John Hughes, who also wrote Home Alone.) Jack Mathews of Newsday calls Hughes "a shameless self-imitator," but says that the film is worth seeing anyway, because "the two things that made the first film great--the spotted pups and Cruella De Vil [Glenn Close]--are even better in the flesh." Writing in the Chicago Tribune, Gene Siskel named it the Flick of the Week on the basis of "three thoroughly entertaining human performances"--from Close, Joely Richardson, and Jeff Daniels--"and an occasionally smart script by John Hughes." But, writing in The New Yorker, Anthony Lane wrote that this was a movie that "doesn't actually move in any direction whatsoever." The New York Times' Janet Maslin considers the production "spotty." ("Dog Toys" and more are available at Disney's site for the film.)
Book Bertrand Russell: The Spirit of Solitude 1872-1921, by Ray Monk (Free Press). All the reviewers have offered high praise for this first of a projected two volumes about the brilliant English philosopher--known for his attempt to reduce mathematics and language to their logical foundations--by the author of a Ludwig Wittgenstein biography. But they are split on the question of whether Russell merited the treatment. Philosopher Richard Rorty says in the New Republic that the book "will attract, and gratify, at least two sorts of readers: [P]eople who find Bloomsbury endlessly fascinating, and philosophy buffs." But, he adds, "[h]istorians are more likely to describe [Russell] not as the Galileo of his discipline, but as the founder of a relatively short-lived, provincial school of thought." Other critics focus on the discrepancy between Russell's fondness for reason and his overheated sex life. Miranda Seymour, writing in the Los Angeles Times, says that "Monk's achievement is to provide a convincing history and explanation for the duality of his extraordinary subject's character." In The New Yorker, Clive James agrees: "By showing us that no matter how brilliant a mind may be, its stupidity will break through," the book "could well amount to a classic study of the personality of genius."
Movie Everyone Says I Love You (Miramax). The critics don't talk much about the meandering plot of Woody Allen's first musical; they're more interested in the music and how good the whole thing feels. Time titled its article "They Sorta Got Rhythm," with critic Richard Schickel acknowledging "most of these people can't sing any better than you or I, but that's part of the movie's charm ... making something fresh and beguiling out of that middle-class, middlebrow angst he has so often explored." The New Republic's Stanley Kauffmann says the movie is "[w]arm from its first moment, and, almost all the time thereafter, it glows." In a long profile in The New Yorker, John Lahr ventures a similar metaphor: Everyone Says I Love You"is one of [Allen's] most radiant works." SLATE's David Greenberg finds it "hilarious."New York's David Denby is one of several acerbic dissenters: At one point, he writes, "we're left hoping they can get through the number without making fools of themselves."Newsweek's David Ansen is another: When Woody pulls a showstopper, he writes, "you may want to wince." (Miramax offers stills and the trailer at its site.)
Music Emancipation, by the Artist Formerly Known as Prince (NPG). Freed from his contract with Warner Brothers, the Artist Formerly Known as Prince has created a three-CD set whose quantity, critics say, overwhelms its quality. "In the end," says Time's Christopher John Farley, "there are just too many middling songs." Mark Jenkins of the Washington Post finds the entire production rather boring, and Entertainment Weekly reports that the first single, a remake of the Stylistics classic "Betcha by Golly, Wow," in ripping off the Fugees' very similar reworking of "Killing Me Softly," is "2 sad 2 B believed." One of the few dissenters is Edna Gundersen of USA Today: She found Emancipation"astounding in both its stylistic breadth and disciplined focus."
Books Drown, by Junot Díaz (Riverhead). The literary world first learned about 27-year-old Dominican Republic-born Díaz last November, when he was awarded a startling six-figure contract to write a short-story collection and a novel. The novel is still in the works, but the buzz on his book of short stories, published last month, has built to a fever pitch. Newsweek proclaimed him on of the 10 new stars of 1996, claiming, "Talent this big will always make noise." The Village Voice Literary Supplement named this "fluid text of heartfelt, artful sociology" one of their 25 favorite books of the year. The Washington Post Book World's Patricia Elam Ruff says Díaz's tales of immigrant life, family melodrama, and disturbing sexuality leave "indelible bruises in the reader's mind." (A good thing, apparently.) In the New York Times Book Review, David Gates asserts that "Mr. Diaz transfigures disorder and disorientation with a rigorous sense of form." The New Republic's James Wood compares Díaz to another celebrated chronicler of immigrant life, Henry Roth (Call It Sleep), with the caveat that Díaz's version of the immigrant experience is far harsher: "Here we have the contemporary literary ideal: peeled, direct, hard, expert, acute and a little bit foreign." (The Putnam-Berkley site plugs the book and includes a brief " Junot Daz in his own words" section.)

--Compiled by Rick Perlstein


Illustrations by Mark Alan Stamaty

Rick Perlstein is associate editor of Lingua Franca.

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