Highlights from the week in criticism.
Feb. 12 1998 3:30 AM



Franklin Foer Franklin Foer

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


Nil by Mouth (Sony Pictures Classics). Actor Gary Oldman's directorial debut about a dysfunctional South London family is praised for avoiding the moralizing mawkishness of the typical British working-class drama. "Mike Leigh sans cuteness" (J. Hoberman, the Village Voice). Reviewers praise the movie's frighteningly realistic violence, especially a scene in which a husband beats his pregnant wife, causing her to miscarry. Watching the film, says The New Yorker's Anthony Lane, is like "getting whacked over the head with a shovel." (Click here for the official site.)

Blues Brothers 2000 (Universal). Would this sequel to the 1980 comedy based on Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi's Saturday Night Live characters have made a "better concert film," as Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times says? Maybe. Colorful performances by B.B. King, James Brown, Aretha Franklin, and other R & B legends can't keep reviewers from complaining that the movie feels like a retread of the original Blues Brothers flick--a blues band traveling cross-country, chased both by police and bad guys. Critics say the tuneless John Goodman can't measure up to the late Belushi, whose absence "is fatal in itself" (Jack Mathews, the Los Angeles Times). (Clips are available here.)

Oscar nominations, early reviews.

Critics deem the roster free of surprises. Titanic, with its 14 nominations (more than any movie since All About Eve), is pegged as the likely best-picture winner. The No. 2 contender is L.A. Confidential, which has swept the film critics' awards. Critics failed to expect only one inclusion and omission: The indie feel-good movie The Full Monty got a best-picture bid, while Steven Spielberg's Amistad didn't. Among the performer nominations, the critics' sentimental favorites are aging actors staging comebacks--Peter Fonda (Ulee's Gold), Burt Reynolds (Boogie Nights), Robert Duvall (The Apostle). (MSNBC lists all the nominees.)



Shopping and Fucking (New York Theatre Workshop, New York City). New York critics respond to the hit London play with either fulsome praise or revulsion. Donald Lyons of the Wall Street Journal hails British playwright Mark Ravenhill as "Tarantino laced with Céline and William Burroughs." Others find the characters' nihilistic rants merely trite and their sexcapades--a 14-year-old begs to be sodomized with knives--disgusting.


Jack Maggs: A Novel, by Peter Carey (Knopf). Unanimous acclaim for the Australian Booker Prize-winner's update of Charles Dickens' Great Expectations. "An audacious and wholly successful act of writerly reinvention" (Marc Carnegie, the Wall Street Journal). Reviewers praise the way Carey re-examines the oppressive aspects of Victorian England and Victorian literature, even as he spins a crack adventure story. "If you've read [Dickens], you get your insider's chuckle. If not, you still get a good yarn" (Lakshmi Gopalkrishnan, Slate). (Click here for an excerpt.)


Black and Blue, by Anna Quindlen (Random House). Anna Quindlen's third novel--a thriller about domestic violence--is seen as yet another way to repackage her old New York Times columns. Issue advocacy comes at the expense of realistic characters and a coherent plot. And why is it, the critics ask, that Quindlen's protagonist, the abused wife of a Brooklyn cop, sounds so much like a sophisticated Manhattan journalist? Dissenters congratulate Quindlen for having moved beyond veiled autobiography.


Yield, by Pearl Jam (Epic). The Seattle grunge band has grown up. It has overcome its penchant for "overblown, chest-beating angst," according to Rob Sheffield of Rolling Stone, with its most mature album to date, which features clever, self-mocking lyrics and bears the influence of '70s supergroup Led Zeppelin. Pearl Jam detractors still can't stand singer Eddie Vedder: They say he's unbearably self-important and limits the group's appeal by refusing to "sell out" and make videos. General consensus: "The fabled '90s alt-rock revolution is over" (Tom Sinclair, Entertainment Weekly).



"China: 5,000 Years" (Guggenheim, New York City). Critics marvel at this exhibit of sculptures, ceramics, and paintings, most of them never seen before outside China. But they knock the Guggenheim's presentation. Gripes: 1) The exhibit aims to sum up 5,000 years in the same amount of space recently devoted to a single Western artist, Robert Rauschenberg. 2) Afraid of alienating the Chinese government, which lent the works, the Guggenheim includes no artists critical of communism. 3) Curators provide too little context and explication. It is "a triumph of institutional chutzpah ... an esthetic showcase of immense ambition in search of a solid reason for happening" (Holland Cotter, the New York Times). (The Guggenheim plugs the show here.)


In the New York Review of Books, James Fenton defends Ted Hughes. " 'Plath lovers' will never forgive Hughes for having been Plath's lover--a role which in their fantasies they would much better fill." A rising consensus deems Hughes' Birthday Letters mediocre poetry: "slack and secondhand" (Christopher Benfey, Slate). ... After initial jeers, critics extend a warmer welcome to Martin Amis' detective novel, Night Train. "The novel draws its energies from the linguistic pyrotechnics of Nabokov and the human immensities of Bellow," says John Lanchester in The New Yorker, where Amis is regularly published.

Recent "Summary Judgment" columns


Theater--The Capeman;

Television--Clinton-Sex-Scandal Coverage;

Television--Dawson's Creek (The WB);

Movie--Great Expectations;

Movie--Desperate Measures;

Book--Cuba Libre, by Elmore Leonard;

Book--The House Gun, by Nadine Gordimer.

Movie--Wag the Dog;

Movie--Gingerbread Man;

Movie--Spice World;

Book--Birthday Letters, by Ted Hughes;

Book--Night Train, by Martin Amis;

Book--Enduring Love, by Ian McEwan;

Event--Super Bowl XXXII;

Dance--"Mikhail Baryshnikov: An Evening of Music and Dance With the White Oak Chamber Ensemble."


Movie--Sundance Film Festival;

Movie--Live Flesh;


Book--Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years, 1963-65, by Taylor Branch;

Book--Shadows on the Hudson, by Isaac Bashevis Singer;

Television--South Park (Comedy Central);

Art--"Arthur Dove: A Retrospective" (Whitney Museum).

Death--Sonny Bono;

Book--A Prayer for the City, by Buzz Bissinger;

Book--Cold Mountain, by Charles Frazier;

Book--The World According to Peter Drucker, by Jack Beatty;


Movie--Arguing the World;

Movie--Ma Vie en Rose.

--Franklin Foer