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


Franklin Foer Franklin Foer

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


Gattaca (Columbia Pictures). Rookie director Andrew Niccol's sci-fi film about a futuristic dystopia wins praise for its moral stand against genetic engineering. Ethan Hawke plays an idealist who suffers discrimination because he was naturally conceived. Some critics call Niccol a stylist and laud his minimalism and use of pale colors. Others say the film has the "earnest simplicity of a freshman philosophy paper" (Jack Mathews, the Los Angeles Times) and "ends in the cheesiest of plot twists" (Rita Kempley, the Washington Post). (Stills and clips are available here.)

A Life Less Ordinary (20th Century Fox). Critics profess surprise that Scottish director Danny Boyle's follow-up to the much-praised Trainspotting should have turned out to be a "pileup of spectacular flakiness" (Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly). They call the plot, in which a disgruntled janitor (Ewan McGregor) kidnaps and then falls in love with his boss's daughter (Cameron Diaz), "pure, vintage fluff" (Janet Maslin, the New York Times). Scenes involving angels, played by Delroy Lindo and Holly Hunter, are said to be especially silly. Critics predict that McGregor and Diaz will be huge stars. (See the official site.)


Triumph of Love (Royale Theatre, New York City). This musical adaptation of an 18th-century French farce about a princess who courts a philosopher is the season's surprise success. Critics praise it for bucking Broadway trends: It is both low-budget and brainy (one of its goals is to mock Enlightenment rationality). The score by first-time composer Jeffrey Stock earns approval for being more Sondheim than Lloyd Webber. Dissenting, the New York Times' Ben Brantley says its over-the-top book confuses bathroom humor with witty repartee.



Speaking Truth to Power, by Anita F. Hill (Doubleday). Critics wonder why Anita Hill even bothered writing her side of the Clarence Thomas controversy--she adds nothing to her case that hasn't been said before in other books. Hill sympathizers, on the other hand, like the book's "straightforward, earnest" tone (Elizabeth Mehren, the Los Angeles Times). Conservatives cannot help noting it bears "the mark of a truly expert complainer" (P.J. O'Rourke, the Weekly Standard).


Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella (ABC; Nov. 2; 7 p.m. EST/PST). A remake of the 1957 made-for-TV musical wins praise for its African-American lead and multiracial cast, which includes Jason Alexander, Whitney Houston, and Whoopi Goldberg. "Finally, a sister is getting to go to the ball," says Newsweek's Veronica Chambers. Others observe that even remakes with good intentions cannot overcome the blandness of the original, whose score is said to be vastly inferior to the Disney film version's.


Lewis & Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery (PBS; Nov. 4 and 5; click here for times). The backlash against the Ken Burns documentary machine kicks into high gear. Critics call the subject of the film inherently intriguing but complain that it has been "marred by the Burnsian sensibility, ... the same sentimentality and earnestness he throws over every subject" (James Collins, Time). Techniques recycled from Burns' documentaries on baseball and the Civil War--including background fiddle music and actors reading wistful letters--are singled out as especially grating. Critics note the emergence of Lewis and Clark chic (a miniseries and a movie about the explorers are imminent). (PBS previews the series.)


The Velvet Rope, by Janet Jackson (Virgin). Janet Jackson's album is said to secure her place in the top tier of pop divas. Critics praise her eclectic style--funk, blues, soul, and dance--and dwell on her racy lyrics. Topics include: phone sex, a ménage à trois, and lesbian trysts. But critics find her raunchiness far more introspective than Madonna's--"closer in spirit to the unabashed emotionalism of Joni Mitchell" (J. D. Considine, Entertainment Weekly). (Audio and video samples and photos are available on the official site.)



Merce Cunningham: Forward & Reverse, choreographed by Merce Cunningham(Brooklyn Academy of Music, New York City). The performance of four new pieces by the 78-year-old avant-garde choreographer occasions pronouncements about his influence on contemporary dance. Critics are surprised that his signature style, in which dancers' movements are determined by coin-tosses and dice-rolling, still works. Praise also goes to his collaborations with other downtown artists like Robert Rauschenberg (sets), Rei Kawakubo (costumes), and John Cage (music). Some carping, however: Costumes by Kawakubo are said to make dancers look like they have "incipient elephant-man disease" and to obscure their movements (Joan Acocella, the Wall Street Journal). (B.A.M. plugs the show.)


In the New Republic, James Wood criticizes Don DeLillo for succumbing to the paranoia he means to depict. "Underworld proves, once and for all, ... the incompatibility of paranoid history with great fiction."

Recent "Summary Judgment" columns


Movie--The Devil's Advocate;

Death--James Michener;

Book--Jackie Robinson: A Biography, by Arnold Rampersad;

Theater--Side Show;

Architecture--New Jersey Performing Arts Center (Newark, N.J.);

Fashion--Wearable Computers (Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab);

Music--Psyché, by Cesar Franck (New York Philharmonic).

Movie--Seven Years in Tibet;


Fashion--Versace, Spring/Summer '98 Collections;

Product--Internet Explorer 4.0;

Award--Nobel Prize for Literature, Dario Fo;

Book--How the Mind Works, by Steven Pinker.


Movie--Washington Square;

Movie--Soul Food;

Architecture--Guggenheim Museum (Bilbao, Spain);

Book--Toward the End of Time, by John Updike;

Death--Roy Lichtenstein.

Movie--The Edge;

Movie--The Peacemaker;

Book--Big Trouble: A Murder in a Small Western Town Sets Off a Struggle for the Soul of America, by J. Anthony Lukas;

Book--Timequake, by Kurt Vonnegut;

Music--Time Out of Mind, by Bob Dylan, and Bridges to Babylon, by the Rolling Stones;

Television--ER: "Ambush" (NBC);

Art--"Sensations: Young British Artists From the Saatchi Collection" (Royal Academy of Art, London).

--Franklin Foer