Highlights from the week in criticism.
April 9 1998 3:30 AM



Franklin Foer Franklin Foer

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


Lost in Space (New Line Cinema). Yet another pan of yet another screen adaptation of an old TV show. The $90 million remake of the sci-fi series is said to lack the original's campy charm. "Silliness has been replaced by stupidity" (Joe Morgenstern, the Wall Street Journal). One problem: a bad screenplay full of pop-psychological clichés about dysfunctional families. Another problem: more than 750 special effects. Nonetheless, the movie dethrones Titanic as the weekend's top box office draw. "Audiences must have lost their will to be entertained," laments the Chicago Sun-Times' Roger Ebert. (Click here for David Edelstein's review in Slate, here for the film's official site, and here to read more of Ebert's complaints in his Slate "Diary.")

The Butcher Boy (Warner Bros.). Critics praise The Crying Game director Neil Jordan for his dark coming of age tale. They particularly like his deft black humor and "gift for genuinely shocking his audience" (Janet Maslin, the New York Times). Pope-basher Sinead O'Connor portrays the Virgin Mary. The story, set in Ireland, concerns a homicidal 12-year-old; critics note the parallels to the Jonesboro, Ark., massacre. (Click here for Edelstein's review in Slate.)

The Spanish Prisoner (Sony Pictures Classics). Playwright David Mamet's fifth cinematic directorial effort--which, like his House of Games and Homicide, concerns a big con--is declared his best. The plot is said to be sinuous and suspenseful, and Mamet is credited with eliciting an uncharacteristically strong performance from Steve Martin. Die-hard Mamet haters complain he's still too abstract, can't write female characters, and "remains a man of the theater" who doesn't get film (David Denby, New York). (Slate's Edelstein reviews The Spanish Prisoner. Here is the official site for the film.)



Left of the Middle, by Natalie Imbruglia (RCA). The 23-year-old Australian ex-soap-opera star is crowned the next Spice Girl, "a pop juggernaut in the making" (Tracey Pepper, the New York Observer). Critics say Imbruglia combines feminist power-pop à la Alanis Morissette and devastating beauty. "A young Audrey Hepburn as refashioned for the post-grunge crowd" (Elysa Gardner, Entertainment Weekly). Cynics contend she's a "producer's puppet," a pretty face who can't write songs or sing (David Thigpen, Time).



Push (ABC; Monday, 8 p.m. EST/PST). This Melrose Place-style soap about aspiring Olympic athletes is deemed the most uncouth of the new teen and twentysomething shows. "Should embarrass ABC. Push is smarmy on every level" (Robert Bianco, USA Today). Some critics say the show is little more than a vehicle for showing women romping around in leotards and swimsuits. Others regret it squanders its potential for camp. (ABC plugs the show here.)

Frontline: From Jesus to Christ--The First Christians (PBS; click here for a schedule). Respectful praise for PBS's two-part documentary on the "real" Jesus, served up for Holy Week. Critics are pleased with its agnosticism: The producers neither support nor refute claims of Jesus' divinity. Instead, they feature 12 scholars talking about his small, fractious sect. Dissenting, the Weekly Standard's Robert Louis Wilken criticizes its focus on trendy concerns (power politics, "narrative") at the expense of spiritual content. "The Jesus presented in this series is the one fashionable in late-twentieth-century academic culture." (Here is the official site.)



An Instance of the Fingerpost, by Iain Pears (Riverhead Books). British journalist Iain Pears' best-selling murder mystery, set in 17th century England, is compared to Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose. Pears uses the thriller as an occasion to wax philosophical, meditating on scientific method and political liberalism. Critics praise his skill at depicting famous historical figures (philosopher John Locke, architect Christopher Wren) and call his Rashomon-style narrative "baroque and ingenious" (Andrew Miller, the New York Times Book Review).

Cavedweller, by Dorothy Allison (Dutton). The author of Bastard out of Carolina, known as a confessional memoirist par excellence, writes about someone other than herself, and earns mixed reviews. Feminists approve of the novel, about an aging rock star and her two abandoned children, because it coldly documents the woman's abuse and is "clear-eyed about the economic forces that shape women's lives" (Valerie Sayers, the New York Times Book Review). Others say Allison "leans precariously toward melodrama" and tries too hard for "gut-wrenching emotion" (Phyllis Richardson, the Los Angeles Times Book Review).



More hubbub about Teletubbies, the PBS show aimed at toddlers: "In Britain, young adults reportedly watch Teletubbies after long nights of dancing and ingesting chemicals surely banned from Teletubbyland," says the New York Times' Caryn James. Ecstasy tablets featuring the faces of Teletubbies have been spotted in London raves. ... In an essay on the state of realism today, the New Republic's Jed Perl pans the Chuck Close retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art as "the work of an artist who has no sensibility and is proud of it."

Recent "Summary Judgment" columns



Movie--The Newton Boys;

Television--From the Earth to the Moon (HBO);

Television--Teletubbies (PBS);

Theater--The Sound of Music;

Book--The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton, by Jane Smiley;

Book--Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, by E.O. Wilson;

Fashion--Fall Lines.

Event--70th Academy Awards;

Television--Sitcom Roundup;

Movie--Primary Colors;

Movie--Wild Things;

Movie--Taste of Cherry;



Movie--The Man in the Iron Mask;

Movie--Love and Death on Long Island;

Movie--Men With Guns;

Television--Lateline (NBC);

Television--SignificantOthers (ABC);

Pop--Pilgrim, by Eric Clapton;

Book--SpinCycle: Inside the Clinton Propaganda Machine, by Howard Kurtz;

Book--The Children, by David Halberstam.

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.

--Franklin Foer