Highlights from the week in criticism.
March 19 1998 3:30 AM



Franklin Foer Franklin Foer

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


The Man in the Iron Mask (MGM-UA Films). This adaptation of Alexandre Dumas' 1846 swashbuckler "transforms its august stars [Leonardo DiCaprio, Jeremy Irons, Gabriel Byrne, Gérard Depardieu, and John Malkovich] into something akin to a manic dinner-theater troupe" (Slate's David Edelstein). The biggest problem: corny dialogue that attempts to replicate 17th century vernacular. But teen idol DiCaprio, who plays both an evil king and his good twin, emerges relatively unscathed. He is better "than more conventional macho stars," despite "look[ing] barely old enough to be playing anyone with hormones" (Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly). His sex appeal--also salivated over in two best-selling biographies--is expected to garner huge box-office returns. (Click here for the official site.)

Love and Death on Long Island (Cinepix Film Properties). Critics are surprised to find themselves raving over a film featuring Beverly Hills 90210 heartthrob Jason Priestley. (He plays a B-movie star with whom a fusty English novelist is obsessed.) Plaudits go to rookie British director Richard Kwietniowski for deploying "exactly calibrated bursts of dry wit" (Kenneth Turan, the Los Angeles Times). But the highest praise goes to character actor John Hurt's wry depiction of the writer. Critics deem Hurt a much underrated talent and say his performance evokes the protagonist of Thomas Mann's 1912 Death in Venice. "A creep, but a true hero" (David Denby, New York). (Edelstein reviews the film in Slate.)

Men With Guns (Sony Pictures Classics). Respectful criticism greets Lone Star director John Sayles' film about the massacre of villagers in Central America. As always, critics applaud Sayles' heartfelt liberalism and choice of offbeat subjects, which make him the "most restlessly independent independent filmmaker" (Lisa Schwarzbaum, Entertainment Weekly). But most critics say he "doesn't have a filmmaker's instinct" (Amy Taubin, the Village Voice). Except in Lone Star, they say, Sayles' dialogue is stilted and his cinematography drab. (Stills and clips are available here.)



Lateline (NBC; Tuesdays, 9:30 p.m. ET/PT). Mixed reviews for this sitcom satire of a TV newsroom, which stars Saturday Night Live alum Al Franken. Some deem it the "funniest new series of the 1997-98 season" (People). They like its topical humor and cameos by such politicos as Richard Gephardt and Robert Reich. Others say its humor is tame compared with the reality of l'affaire Lewinsky. "While news is getting more entertaining, entertainment is becoming more toothless than ever" (Caryn James, the New York Times). (NBC plugs the show here.)

Significant Others (Fox; Wednesdays, 9 p.m. ET/PT). Fox continues its campaign to corner the Gen X market, with yet another one-hour drama about twentysomethings. Created by the makers of the popular Party of Five, Significant Others details the travails of a soft-core porn writer and his two best friends. Some praise the show for its self-parodic dialogue and realistic characters who are "as annoying and self-absorbed--as people of your own acquaintance" (Barbara Phillips, the Wall Street Journal). Others say they have no interest in watching "spineless, whiny, indecisive nitwits" (Tom Shales, the Washington Post).



Pilgrim, by Eric Clapton (Reprise). The '70s megastar's first album of new songs in nine years is deemed melancholic and sluggish, "like it has been injected with a tranquilizer" (David Browne, Entertainment Weekly). Critics lament that his guitar playing includes none of his signature virtuoso licks. And they chalk up his morose lyrics to his 4-year-old son's 1991 death. Dissenting, Rolling Stone's David Wild forgives the album's faults: It "captures the sound of a man trying to tame hell-hounds from within."



Spin Cycle: Inside the Clinton Propaganda Machine, by Howard Kurtz (The Free Press). The Washington Post's media critic milks the Monica moment, rushing his insider account of White House spinmeisters to press months ahead of schedule. Critics revel in his fresh dish (Clinton turns apoplectic over the slightest unfavorable mention; Hillary hates Press Secretary Mike McCurry; McCurry pits reporters against one another). "The best book in many years on Washington media," says the Weekly Standard's Andrew Ferguson. Dissenting in the Wall Street Journal, Russ Smith says the current hubbub upstages Kurtz's best material, rendering it moldy and boring. His book "will only be read by C-SPAN junkies." (Slate's Jacob Weisberg explains why the media want Clinton to fall.)

The Children, by David Halberstam (Random House). The Pulitzer Prize-winning crack journalist revisits one of his first assignments--the early '60s Nashville civil rights movement. (He traces the lives of eight student leaders, including Washington, D.C., Mayor Marion Barry and Georgia Rep. John Lewis.) His depiction of harrowing sit-ins "captures the courage and nobility of those small-scale protests that would transform America" (Tamar Jacoby, the Wall Street Journal). Others say the 783-page book could have stood a heavy edit.



More Primary Colors buzz: Newsweek's David Ansen calls it "the most vital Hollywood movie of the new year." The New Yorker's Hendrik Hertzberg calls it "the smartest movie ever made about American politics."

Recent "Summary Judgment" columns

Movie--The Big Lebowski;


Movie--Primary Colors hype;


Movie--U.S. Marshals;

Theater--The Beauty Queen of Leenane;

Book--One Nation, After All, by Alan Wolfe;

Book--A History of the American People, by Paul Johnson.

Movie--An Alan Smithee Film: Burn Hollywood Burn;

Movie--Krippendorf's Tribe;


Music--Ray of Light, by Madonna;

Book--The Smithsonian Institution, by Gore Vidal;


Art--"Chuck Close" (Museum of Modern Art).

Television--The American Experience: Reagan (PBS);

Television--The Wedding (ABC);

Television--The Closer (CBS);


Book--Cloudsplitter, by Russell Banks;

Art--"Fernand Léger" (Museum of Modern Art);



Movie--Mrs. Dalloway;

Movie--The Wedding Singer;

Book--The Street Lawyer, by John Grisham;

Book--Riven Rock, by T. Coraghessan Boyle;

Television--18th Winter Olympics (CBS);

Theater--The Vagina Monologues.

--Franklin Foer