Career Girls (October Films). Director Mike Leigh's latest film about working-class Brits "trapped in the hopelessness of modern life" (Richard Schickel, Time) is rated a notch below his acclaimed Naked and Secrets & Lies. The premise--ex-college roommates spend a weekend together for the first time in six years--is overly "modest" (Todd McCarthy, Variety): "[N]othing much happens, dramatically speaking," says Schickel. But The New Yorker's Terrence Rafferty says the film contains "enough small truths and enough off-hand comic business to keep you reasonably happy for an hour and a half." New York's David Denby says it proves Leigh "digs deeper into people than any other director now working in movies." (See the Career Girls site.)
In the Company of Men (Sony Pictures Classics). Polarized reactions to Neil LaBute's low-budget debut about two businessmen who scheme to seduce and dump a deaf woman. Some discern a feminist slant to the film's "ballsy depiction of man's inhumanity to woman, and man" (Lisa Schwarzbaum, Entertainment Weekly). The New York Times' Janet Maslin praises its "critical detachment" and "coolly stylized exaggeration," which make it "impossible to mistake In the Company of Men for simple bigotry." Others perceive rank cynicism. Newsday's Jack Mathews says LaBute "has avoided the gray shades of life for in-your-face sensationalism. He's made a horror movie designed to shock, and nothing else." (Stills and clips are available here.)
Spawn (New Line Cinema). Based on a cult-hit comic book about a CIA agent who returns from the dead to destroy the human race as part of a Faustian bargain, this live-action film crosses over to mass-market success with both teens and kids--the next Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Spawn action figures have been selling out of stores, and the film grossed $20 million its opening weekend. Newsweek praises it as "the summer's most spectacular concoction of visual effects and color." Most critics, however, echo the New York Times' Stephen Holden's verdict: "an incoherent blitz of noise, chintzy special effects and bargain-basement allegory." (Click here for Spawn's site.)
Our Guys: The Glen Ridge Rape and the Secret Life of the Perfect Suburb, by Bernard Lefkowitz (University of California Press). A journalism professor's account of the 1989 incident in which eight high-school jocks raped a mentally retarded girl. "Important," says the New York Times Book Review. "[B]rilliantly rendered," says the Weekly Standard. Praise goes to Lefkowitz's "painstaking" reporting. Shock is expressed at the upper-middle-class New Jersey community's blasé reaction to rape (boys boasted about it in their yearbook). But reviewers fault Lefkowitz for "sweeping platitudes and clichés that trivialize" (Sally Jenkins, the Washington Post) when he links the rape to Glen Ridge's obsession with sports.
Faith or Fear: How Jews Can Survive in a Christian America, by Elliott Abrams (Free Press). The ex-Reagan administration official's tract against Jewish assimilation stokes an old debate most recently fueled by Alan Dershowitz's The Vanishing American Jew. Political conservatives endorse Abrams' calls for a return to Orthodoxy and an alliance with evangelical Christians. "Elliott Abrams is a severe, insightful critic of the assumptions that have brought the American Jewish community to its current predicament," says Mark Miller in the Weekly Standard. Liberals rebuke Abrams for his alarmism about intermarriage. In a New York Times op-ed piece, J.J. Goldberg says he relies on discredited studies in order to exaggerate the "crisis."
William S. Burroughs (1914-1997). Obituaries of the author of Naked Lunch highlight his importance as a countercultural role model, calling him "the non-conformist's non-conformist" (the Boston Globe) who "inspired a who's who of pop culture" (USA Today). They dwell on the artists (Beats, punk rockers) who embraced Burroughs as a guru, and retell bizarre anecdotes from his life (he shot his wife accidentally, slept with little boys, and hawked his typewriter to buy heroin). Yet none of the obits argues for his literary greatness, or that his writing should be read by future generations except for reasons of historical curiosity.
Palestrina, by Hans Pfitzner, performed by the Royal Opera (Metropolitan Opera House, New York). Controversy embroils the first American performance of German composer Hans Pfitzner's 1917 opera. Some critics argue Pfitzner has been unfairly ignored because of his friendship with Hitler, and urge revision. The New Yorker's Alex Ross calls Palestrina--about the 16th-century Italian church-music composer--"a spectacle that is magnificent on the surface and haunting at the core." Others, though, bash Pfitzner's work as a pale imitation of Wagner, "massively bloated [and] endlessly meandering," and say its American performance would have been "[b]etter never, perhaps, than late" (Martin Bernheimer, the Los Angeles Times).
Recent "Summary Judgment" columns
Movie--Air Force One;
Book--Martha Stewart, Just Desserts: The Unauthorized Biography, by Jerry Oppenheimer;
Book--A Book of Memories, by Peter Nadas, translated by Ivan Sanders with Imre Goldstein.
Movie--Shall We Dance?;
Book--Lawyerland: What Lawyers Talk About When They Talk About the Law, by Lawrence Joseph;
Book--Straight Man, by Richard Russo;
Movie--Men in Black;
Book--Women With Men, by Richard Ford;
Book--American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence, by Pauline Maier;
Book--Man Without a Face: The Autobiography of Communism's Greatest Spymaster, by Markus Wolf with Anne McElvoy;
Art--"Keith Haring" (Whitney Museum of American Art);
Movie--Batman & Robin;
Book--The Puttermesser Papers, by Cynthia Ozick;
Book--How Proust Can Change Your Life: Not a Novel, by Alain de Botton;
Book--Bright Angel Time, by Martha McPhee.
--Compiled by Franklin Foer and the editors of Slate.