Highlights from the week in criticism.
Feb. 5 1998 3:30 AM



Franklin Foer Franklin Foer

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


The Capeman (Marquis Theatre, New York City). The eagerly awaited but troubled collaboration of singer-songwriter Paul Simon, poet Derek Walcott, and choreographer Mark Morris is judged to be worse than expected. "It's like watching a mortally wounded animal," says the New York Times' Ben Brantley. Critics say the show, about a Puerto Rican teen gang member and convicted murderer, fails to make its protagonist sympathetic even as it moralizes smugly about racism. Simon's score, a combination of salsa and '50s doo-wop, is singled out for praise. "There's more musical invention in a song like 'Trailways Bus' than in the entire score of the much ballyhooed Ragtime," says Slate's Mark Steyn. Sideshow: Picketers castigated the show for glorifying a killer. (Audio clips are available here.)


Clinton-Sex-Scandal Coverage. Critics rail against irresponsible reporting on the scandal but admit that they like watching it. Their main points: 1) The 24-hour news channels' unremitting coverage made the networks' nightly broadcasts look "more like dinosaurs than ever" (Bruce Fretts, Entertainment Weekly). 2) Because the story's main outline emerged so fast, it lacked the sustaining drama of Watergate. 3) Matt Drudge and Monica Lewinsky's lawyer William Ginsburg appeared on too many talk shows, discrediting themselves as publicity whores. (Slate's Jacob Weisberg has a different take on Ginsburg and the talk-show circuit. Click here for his "dispatch" on the subject.) 4) The media's apologies for their excessive coverage were on target but tiresome. 5) Sam Donaldson, who returned to ABC's White House beat the week before the scandal, thrives out in the field, not in the studio.

Dawson's Creek (The WB; Tuesdays, 9 p.m. ET/PT). The fledgling WB network hopes that this prime-time teen soap opera, alongside its cult hit Buffy the Vampire Slayer, will launch it toward Fox-like legitimacy. Critics scoff. They profess revulsion at such vulgar subplots as a high-school student's affair with his teacher and a character who masturbates while watching Katie Couric. "It makes Melrose Place look like Petticoat Junction," says Newsweek's Rick Marin. Reviewers say the show is long on pop-culture allusions and short on psychological acumen. "My So-Called Life without the life" (Ken Tucker, Entertainment Weekly). (The WB plugs the show.)



Great Expectations (20th Century Fox). Critics aren't buying Alfonso Cuarón's transposition of Charles Dickens' 1861 novel to present-day Florida and New York. It "plays like a dead battery disguised as an objet d'art" (Jay Carr, the Boston Globe). They are especially irked by the movie's artsy pretensions (Pip is turned into a tortured painter) and earnestness (its un-Dickensian fulminations about undying love), as well as flat performances by Ethan Hawke and Gwyneth Paltrow. But Cuarón is praised as "a voluptuous visual stylist" (Janet Maslin, the New York Times) who turns in beautiful shots of beaches and the naked Paltrow. (Click here for the official site.)

Desperate Measures (TriStar Pictures). Michael Keaton is said to waste an intense performance on a silly film. He plays a psychotic murderer hunted by a cop (Andy Garcia) who needs Keaton's bone marrow to save his dying son. Aside from an absurd premise that "most TV medical dramas would wrap up in 20 minutes" (Susan Wloszczyna, USA Today), the film is riddled with overwrought hospital scenes and numbing car chases--"clichés that mount like fallen bricks" (Jack Mathews, the Los Angeles Times).



Cuba Libre, by Elmore Leonard (Delacorte). Acclaim for the pulp-fiction writer's 34th novel. Set in Cuba during the Spanish-American war, the novel is part Western (the main character, Ben Tyler, is an Arizona cowboy) and part noir (he's in on an arms-smuggling scam gone bad). The book is said to display Leonard's usual "flair for characters and capers" (Henry Louis Gates, The New Yorker) and period detail. Dissenting in the New York Times Book Review, Pico Iyer finds Cuba Libre vapid: "The central moral question raised ... is whether Tyler should be played by Val Kilmer or Brad Pitt."

The House Gun, by Nadine Gordimer (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). The Nobel Prize-winning novelist produces a clunker: Critics say she's stuck in pre-democratic South Africa. "She has yet to come to terms, artistically ... with her country's drastically changed landscape" (Michiko Kakutani, the New York Times). Tired harangues about capital punishment and gun control are said to come at the expense of developing her characters, who "don't behave like humans" (Carolyn See, the Washington Post). Others pay the customary obeisance to Gordimer's nuanced depiction of morally confused white liberals, in this case an older couple whose son is accused of murder.

Recent "Summary Judgment" columns


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.

Movie--The Apostle;

Movie--Oscar and Lucinda;

Movie--The Boxer;

Television--Seinfeld (NBC);

Book--Truman Capote: In Which Various Friends, Enemies, Acquaintances, and Detractors Recall His Turbulent Career, by George Plimpton;

Book--Paradise, by Toni Morrison;

Music--"Northern Lights: The Music of Jean Sibelius."

--Franklin Foer