Highlights from the week in criticism.
Aug. 27 1998 3:30 AM




Dance With Me (Sony Pictures Entertainment). Despite great Latin music, athletic dancing, and two gorgeous stars (Vanessa Williams and Puerto Rican pop sensation Chayanne), this movie falls flat. Calling the script "dreadfully predictable" and a "cliché-hugging melodrama" (Jack Mathews, Newsday), critics complain that it lacks the fun of two other recent dance movie successes, Shall We Dance? and Strictly Ballroom. As Michael Wilmington of the Chicago Tribune says, "The dances aren't just musical highlights. They're relief from the rest of the film." (Visit the official site.)

Your Friends & Neighbors (Gramercy Pictures). Neil LaBute's follow-up to last year's Sundance sensation, In the Company of Men, is just as nasty as his first film and leaves critics arguing over whether the writer/director is trying to make a moral point or just delights in inventing callous bastards. The action revolves around six characters (two couples and two singles) who betray and manipulate each other in various combinations in a biting, misanthropic sexual satire. Most critics, such as the Los Angeles Times' Kenneth Turan, are repulsed, calling it "a cinema of humiliation, embarrassment, and misery." But some find the bleakness compelling and praise the dialogue and flashes of black humor. Dave Kehr of the Daily News calls it "cool, sharply funny." (Read this interview with LaBute.)

Unmade Beds (not in distribution). This quasidocumentary follows four real single people living and looking for love in New York City, but director Nicholas Barker has taken some crucial liberties--the dialogue in the film is scripted, based on conversations with his subjects. Some critics are fascinated by the new possibilities opened up by this license and call the film "one of the more original movies of the year" (David Denby, New York). Others are uneasy about the intimate, sad, and somewhat mocking portraits that emerge of these deeply flawed and lonely individuals and call the film "depressing and undeniably cruel" (Anita Gates, the New York Times). (Read Slate's David Edelstein on Barker's quest for "larger dramatic truths.")



The Rat Pack (HBO; click here for show times). HBO's movie on the famous group of '60s entertainers has a fatal flaw: Ray Liotta isn't convincing as Frank Sinatra. Without Sinatra's personal magnetism and charisma, no amount of lavish period set design or even Don Cheadle's show-stealing performance as Sammy Davis Jr. can rescue the film. Most agree with Tom Shales of the Washington Post, who says watching this film "is like having a hangover without the fun of getting happily plastered in the first place." Entertainment Weekly's Ken Tucker is the lone dissenter, claiming the film possesses an "irreverent energy and a swaggering style that does its subject proud." (Visit the official site.)



The First Eagle, by Tony Hillerman (HarperCollins). Hillerman's 13th mystery novel set in Navajoland meets the critics' high expectations. Joe Leaphorn, now retired from the Navajo police force, and his colleague acting Lt. Jim Chee must solve a murder and explain the disappearance of a biologist who was studying the reservation's plague-carrying desert rodents. USA Today's Katy Kelly writes, "The plague problem, which should be riveting, is so well-explained that it wearies the reader." But most critics praise Hillerman's storytelling and deft handling of "the intersection of science and myth" (Bob Blumenthal, the Boston Globe). (Buy this book from Amazon.com.)

Summer of Deliverance: A Memoir of Father and Son, by Christopher Dickey (Simon & Schuster). Journalist Christopher Dickey's combination memoir and biography of his poet and novelist (Deliverance) father, James Dickey, is praised as a "loving, ruthless portrait" (Lance Morrow, Time). Although he cleaned up his act a couple of years before dying, Dickey Sr. spent much of his life boozing, telling self-aggrandizing tall tales, and openly cheating on his wife. Critics draw parallels to Susan Cheever's memoir of her father, Home Before Dark, but find this book less shocking because unlike John Cheever, Dickey Sr.'s demons were widely publicized. In the Washington Post, Susan Cheever questions the "understanding" the Dickeys reach at book's end, as does Christopher Lehmann-Haupt of the New York Times, who claims "the book offers incomplete catharsis." (Buy this book from Amazon.com.)


Kaaterskill Falls,by Allegra Goodman (Dial Press). After two highly acclaimed story collections, this "young Mozart of Jewish fiction" (Judith Dunford, Newsday) has written a warm, subtle, understated novel about the daily lives of a group of Orthodox Jews who summer in a small town in the Catskills. Critics praise Goodman's finely honed descriptive abilities and "instinctive grasp of familial dynamics, the ways in which dreams and emotional habits are handed down ... from generation to generation" (Michiko Kakutani, the New York Times). A few, like Pearl K. Bell in the Wall Street Journal, find "a surfeit of sweetly obedient docility" in the novel and say parts are "perilously at the edge of sentimentality." (Read an essay by the author and an excerpt from the novel here.)

Recent "Summary Judgment" columns

Movie--The Avengers;


Movie--Return to Paradise;

Movie--The Slums of Beverly Hills;

Music--Whitechocolatespaceegg, by Liz Phair;

Book--The Father of Spin: Edward L. Bernays and the Birth of Public Relations, by Larry Tye;


Book--Philistines at the Hedgerow: Passion and Property in the Hamptons, by Steven S. Gaines.

Movie--Snake Eyes;

Movie--Halloween: H20;

Movie--How Stella Got Her Groove Back;

Book--Rainbow Six, by Tom Clancy;

Television--Jerry Seinfeld: I'm Telling You for the Last Time--Live on Broadway (HBO);

Television--The Upright Citizens Brigade (Comedy Central).

Art--"The Art of the Motorcycle";

Television--Lolita (Showtime);

Television--Maximum Bob (ABC);

Movies--Ever After: A Cinderella Story;

Movies--The Negotiator;

Book--Burn Rate, by Michael Wolff;

Death--Jerome Robins.

Book--The Modern Library's 100 Best English-Language Novels Since 1900;

Book--Point of Origin, by Patricia Cornwell;

Movie--Disturbing Behavior;


Movie--The Thief.

--Eliza Truitt