Highlights from the week in criticism.
Dec. 11 1997 3:30 AM



Amistad (DreamWorks Pictures). Steven Spielberg's eagerly awaited docudrama about an 1839 slave-ship mutiny inspires much enthusiasm and some disappointment. As with Schindler's List, many reviewers celebrate Spielberg for creating a film of "emotional and moral weight" (Richard Schickel, Time) that awakens the public to a historical tragedy. Benin-born model Djimon Hounsou as the lead mutineer and Anthony Hopkins as his lawyer, former President John Quincy Adams, are singled out for praise. But some critics complain the film is "more dutiful than dramatic" (Leah Rozen, People) or just "a courtroom drama of dull, soapbox ponderousness" (Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly). (Click here for the official site.)

Franklin Foer Franklin Foer

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


Good Will Hunting (Miramax). Critics conclude that Wunderkind Matt Damon--the film's star and (with co-star Ben Affleck) co-author--lives up to his hype. His screenplay, about a South Boston janitor revealed to be a genius, is called a "wise, inviting story" (Janet Maslin, the New York Times). And his performance as the janitor, says the Wall Street Journal's Joe Morgenstern, exhibits "a coiled strength that hasn't been seen since the young Marlon Brando." Robin Williams' turn as the savant's shrink is said to revive his career, two weeks after it was pronounced stalled in the reviews of Flubber. Dissenters call Good Will Hunting"conventional" and fraught with "traditional sticky sentimentality" (Kenneth Turan, the Los Angeles Times). (Miramax plugs the film.)


Breast Men (HBO; Dec. 13; 9 p.m. EST/PST). Applause for this morality tale about the inventors of the breast implant, who go from being star surgeons in the '70s to coke heads in the '80s. "The Boogie Nights of the fake-boob industry" (Bruce Fretts, Entertainment Weekly). Critics admire the show's witty satire of sleazy doctors, as well as the performances by David Schwimmer (Friends) and Chris Cooper (Lone Star). New York's John Leonard gripes that Breast Men simply exploits cable TV's independence to show gratuitous flesh: "In an exuberance meant to be Rabelaisian, it crosses the line from peep show into pornography." (HBO plugs the show.)



The Diary of Anne Frank (Music Box Theatre, New York City). Critics credit this revival of the 1955 Pulitzer Prize-winning play with correcting many of the original's faults. The revival "doesn't diminish the magnitude of the events behind it" (the New York Times' Ben Brantley) or water down Frank's Judaism. Both the script and 16-year-old actress Natalie Portman (Everyone Says I Love You) are said to render Anne Frank less of a caricature than before. Dissenters echo Cynthia Ozick's criticism in an October issue of The New Yorker that the play remains "infantilized, Americanized, homogenized, [and] sentimentalized." (See the play's site.)


Amistad (performed by the Lyric Opera of Chicago, Civic Opera House, Chicago). Composer Anthony Davis and his librettist cousin, Thulani Davis (X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X), offer their rendition of the suddenly hot slave-ship saga. Critics like the movie better. They chide the opera for making African folk deities the major characters at the expense of explaining the slave revolt itself. The score, which borrows from Benjamin Britten and bebop, is called incoherent and "bland" (Paul Griffiths, the New York Times). "One of the biggest missed opportunities the operatic world has seen in a while," says USA Today's David Patrick Stearns.



A Certain Justice, by P.D. James (Knopf). Mixed reviews for the best-selling English crime novelist's latest whodunit. Some condemn the novel, in which an arrogant barrister who defends rogues is murdered, for its clichéd depiction of lawyering and its unconvincingly tidy ending. "The moral and emotional questions she asks do not admit of such neatness," says the New York Times Book Review's Ben Macintyre. Others say James ascends from pulp fiction to high art, with well-drawn characters and turns of phrase "of which Jane Austen might have been proud" (Gerald Kaufman, the Daily Telegraph). (An excerpt is available at Random House's site.)


A modest rebound for John Updike's widely panned Toward the End of Time. The New York Times Book Review declares it one of the year's "ten best books," and Joyce Carol Oates, writing in TheNew Yorker (for which Updike often writes), calls it "the most inventive of his myriad fiction. ... Updike's prose, as always, is distinguished by passages of lyric beauty."


Recent "Summary Judgment" columns

Architecture--J. Paul Getty Museum (Los Angeles);

Theater--The Old Neighborhood, by David Mamet;



Movie--Welcome to Sarajevo;

Television--Public Housing (PBS);

Book--Release 2.0: A Design for Living in the Digital Age, by Esther Dyson;

Photography--"Weegee's World: Life, Death, and the Human Drama" (International Center of Photography Midtown).

Movie--Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil;

Movie--John Grisham's The Rainmaker;

Movie--Alien Resurrection;

Book--Ronald Reagan: How an Ordinary Man Became an Extraordinary Leader, by Dinesh D'Souza;


Music--StandingStone, by Paul McCartney.

Movie--The Jackal;


Movie--The Sweet Hereafter;

Theater--The Lion King;

Book--Another City, Not My Own, by Dominick Dunne;

Art--"Egon Schiele: The Leopold Collection, Vienna" (Museum of Modern Art).

Movie--Starship Troopers;

Movie--The Wings of the Dove;



Book--The Dark Side of Camelot, by Seymour M. Hersh;

Book--Alfred C. Kinsey: A Public/Private Life, by James H. Jones;

Book--Joy of Cooking: The All-Purpose Cookbook;

Art--"The Warhol Look/Glamour Fashion Style" (Whitney Museum).

--Franklin Foer