Highlights from the week in criticism.
June 12 1997 3:30 AM



Franklin Foer Franklin Foer

Franklin Foer is a Slate contributing editor and the author of World Without Mind.


Con Air (Touchstone Pictures). This action flick, about a rogues' gallery of prisoners who hijack a jet, is deemed summer-blockbuster overkill: too many ridiculous plot twists, too many explosions, too much ripping off of its predecessors. It is "so monumentally idiotic, frenzied and cheesy--the special effects look like Tonka toys writ large--that it re-sets the bar for the genre," says the Wall Street Journal's Joe Morgenstern. Reviewers split on the star, Nicolas Cage. He either "emerges intact from the rubble" (Anthony Lane, The New Yorker) or proves "he can be as much of an overmuscled jackass as Sylvester Stallone" (David Edelstein, Slate). (Click here for the Con Air site.)

Ulee's Gold (Orion Pictures). Peter Fonda's comeback--as a stoic beekeeper facing down his convict son's thuggish friends--is called his first worthy performance since Easy Rider (1969). "[A]fter all this time, a role that suits his rocklike demeanor perfectly and makes virtues of his expressive limitations" (Terrence Rafferty, The New Yorker). Slow-paced and minimalist, the film is hailed as an anti-blockbuster: It "achieves a rare, and rarely earned, emotional depth ... ennobling and enriching without being sticky or sanctimonious" (Todd McCarthy, Variety). (See Edelstein's review and Orion's promotional site.)

The Pillow Book (Cinepix Film Properties). The latest from avant-garde British director Peter Greenaway (The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover) elicits a familiar critique: It's judged a visual knockout but pretentious as hell. Most critics say the movie, about a Japanese woman's peculiar fetish, has lots of gorgeous naked bodies but little plot or character development. A "cold, contemptuous, and interminable Oedipal saga," says the Village Voice's J. Hoberman, "just a big, static snooze." The New York Times' Janet Maslin, on the other hand, says the "audaciously beautiful imagery, captivating symmetries and brilliantly facile tricks" redeem the film.



Wu-Tang Forever, Wu-Tang Clan (RCA/Loud). Critics predict that the Staten Island rap group's 27-track double CD--released along with Wu-Wear, a clothing line--will mark a breakthrough for hip-hop, as both hype and art. The Wu-Tang Clan has entered the "stagnant hip-hop scene like a slap in the face, parading its strikingly original gutter funk like a ghetto peacock" (Matt Diehl, Entertainment Weekly). Critics admire the group's eclectic influences--including funk, flamenco, and psychedelic--and its lyrics, "as dense, obsessed, prolific and full of popular and arcane references as a Pynchon novel" (Neil Strauss, the New York Times). (Clips are available here.)



Without a Doubt, by Marcia Clark, with Teresa Carpenter (Viking). Readers don't seem to mind that the O.J. prosecutor's angry memoir--a New York Times No. 1 best seller--adds little to the vast body of literature about the trial. But critics do. "As her title suggests, self-reflection and an appreciation of ambiguity are not Marcia Clark's strong points," Ellen Willis writes in the New York Times Book Review. The dead prose style, adds Entertainment Weekly's Dana Kennedy, "reads as if Clark had dictated it from her car phone." To the dismay of still others, Clark neither confirms nor denies the rumor that she and fellow prosecutor Christopher Darden slept together.

Firewall: The Iran-Contra Conspiracy and Cover-Up, by Lawrence E. Walsh (W.W. Norton). Too much minutiae, not enough revelations is the consensus criticism of the Iran-Contra Special Prosecutor's chronicle of his seven-year investigation. Wanting still to win the case, he rehashes arcane and forgotten episodes from the Reagan-era scandal seemingly for his own benefit. "The leaden account ... feels like it goes on for seven years" (Jacob Weisberg, Slate). Only The Nation's Doug Ireland finds merit in Walsh's brief against the Reagan administration, calling the attorney "a genuine American hero."


Promiscuities: The Secret Struggle for Womanhood, by Naomi Wolf (Random House). The Third Wave feminist's third book--part memoir, part sociology, part political tract--gets praised for its lyrically rendered anecdotes and slammed for shoddy thinking. The part about her sexual coming-of-age in San Francisco fares reasonably well. "[S]he melts together the personal and political so gently we're barely aware of the difference," says Newsweek's Laura Shapiro. But Wolf's politics are roundly ridiculed, especially her idea that girls should retreat to the wilderness with older women to perform ceremonial sex rites. "[S]he tries in vain to pass off tired observations as radical aperçus, subjective musings as general truths, sappy suggestions as useful ideas," writes the New York Times' Michiko Kakutani.


Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde (Minetta Lane Theatre, New York City). Applause for this off-off Broadway play (written by Moisés Kaufman, an unknown gay Venezuelan dramatist), which finally hits the big time. Rescued from obscurity three months ago by a rave from the New York Times' Ben Brantley, Gross Indecency, about the Irish playwright's famous sodomy trials, started an open-ended New York run last week. The play recounts Wilde's downfall, says USA Today's David Patrick Stearns, "with the inevitability and much of the monumentality of a Greek tragedy." New York's John Simon, the lone sniper, says the play deserved to languish in obscurity because of its "annoying cuteness."



In one of the most scathing reviews of Norman Mailer's Jesus book to date, The Nation's Mary Gordon asks: "How can someone who has published so much, some of it admirable, have written such a bad book? A book whose badness leaves the reader first with a sense of reluctance (must I really go on?), then anger (how can he let himself get away with this?), then embarrassment (it is unseemly to cast my eyes on such a spectacle)." ... Praise continues to escalate for Philip Roth's American Pastoral. In the Washington Post Book World, Donna Rifkind calls it "possibly the finest work of his career."

Recent "Summary Judgment" columns

Movie--Trial and Error;


Music--Blood on the Dance Floor--HIStory in the Mix, Michael Jackson;

Television--Bill Clinton: Rock & Roll President (VH1);

Television--Port Charles (ABC);

Book--Race, Crime, and the Law, by Randall Kennedy;

Book--Virginia Woolf, by Hermione Lee;

Book--Kowloon Tong, by Paul Theroux;

Event-- The Tony Awards;

Art--"Objects of Desire: The Modern Still Life" (Museum of Modern Art).

Movie--The Lost World;

Movie--Addicted to Love;

Movie--Brassed Off;

Television--Murder One (ABC);

Theater--King David;

Music--Flaming Pie, by Paul McCartney;

Book--Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life, by Jon Lee Anderson;

Book--Rage for Fame: The Ascent of Clare Boothe Luce, by Sylvia Jukes Morris;

Art--New Chinese Galleries (Metropolitan Museum of Art).

Book--Underboss: Sammy the Bull Gravano's Story of Life in the Mafia, by Peter Maas;

Book--The Actual: A Novella, by Saul Bellow;

Television--Roseanne (ABC);

Television--David Blaine: Street Magic (ABC);

Event--Cannes International Film Festival;

Movie--Night Falls on Manhattan;

Movie--Love! Valour! Compassion!;

Theater--The Wizard of Oz.

Architecture--New Amsterdam Theater;

Event--Cannes International Film Festival;

Movie--Father's Day;

Movie--The Fifth Element;

Movie--The Designated Mourner;

Television--The Odyssey (NBC);

Book--The Courage to Stand Alone: Letters From Prison and Other Writings, by Wei Jingsheng, translated and edited by Kristina M. Torgeson;

Book--Time Bind: When Work Becomes Home and Home Becomes Work, by Arlie Russell Hochschild;



--Compiled by Franklin Foer and the editors of Slate.