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




American History X (New Line Cinema). Edward Norton's performance as a white supremacist who mends his ways has critics predicting an Oscar. The film itself is panned. Nitpicks: 1) The antihero's conversion is unconvincing. 2) The film begins as an intelligent exploration of the origins of hate and ends as a hackneyed cautionary tale. 3) "[I]n its visual heart of hearts [the film] loves the style and swagger of the Nazis" (Stephen Hunter, the Washington Post). Playing a fellow prison inmate of Norton's, newcomer Guy Torry catches the reviewers' eyes. (Slate's David Edelstein says the film "has the soul of a guidance counselor." Read his review here.)

John Carpenter's Vampires (Sony Pictures Entertainment). Critics pan John (Halloween) Carpenter's gore-fest about a Vatican-employed vampire slayer in New Mexico. An interesting mix of genres (vampire and Western) winds up as a hokey mess: "[T]his gummy mix of fake-Catholic mumbo jumbo and teeth-in-neck horror goes limp" (Lisa Schwarzbaum, Entertainment Weekly). "[T]he unintended campiness of Vampires makes Night of the Living Dead look like an episode of Nightline" (Michael O'Sullivan, the Washington Post). But Gene Siskel praises the film, calling it "surprisingly entertaining" (Chicago Tribune). (Watch the trailer.)

Life Is Beautiful (Miramax Films). A triumph of the human spirit or an insult to the murdered millions? The critics are evenly split on writer-director-star Roberto Benigni's comedy set in a concentration camp. Those in favor say the film is really a fable about parental love, since Benigni's character's antics are really an effort to shield his son from the horrors of World War II. Other critics contend "turning even a small corner of this century's central horror into feel-good popular entertainment is abhorrent" (Richard Schickel, Time). (Read Abraham Foxman's New York Times op-ed piece, "The Holocaust Meets Popular Culture," which defends the film. Free registration required. Click here for Edelstein's review in Slate.)

Living Out Loud (New Line Cinema). Holly Hunter and Danny DeVito turn in solid performances as two lonely Manhattanites abandoned by their spouses, and Queen Latifah sparkles as a wise cabaret singer. The New York Times' Janet Maslin says the unlikely pairing of DeVito and Hunter succeeds because it is not a romance but the story of a friendship. Dourer critics call the older-woman-starts-over plot a "done-to-death feminist premise" (Susan Wloszcyna, USA Today). (Visit the official site.)



"Jackson Pollock" (Museum of Modern Art, New York City). This retrospective, which includes over 200 of Pollock's paintings as well as a reproduction of his studio, leaves no doubt as to Pollock's importance to American art. "[A]n experience as powerful as any in modern art" (Mark Stevens, New York). The New York Times' Michael Kimmelman calls the paintings "astonishingly beautiful." (Read Jacob Weisberg's review in Slate or visit the MoMA's Pollock site.)



A Man in Full, by Tom Wolfe (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). Better than Bonfire of the Vanities. Eleven years in the making and nominated for the National Book Award before its official publication date, Wolfe's new novel is hailed as a masterpiece by some, given mixed reviews by others. This time, critics say, Wolfe has included a character the reader can like, rather than the usual cast of unappealing caricatures. Praise is tempered with complaints that the book is "entertainment, not literature" (John Updike, The New Yorker) and that the ending is artificial and "stage-managed" (Michiko Kakutani, New York Times). (Read an excerpt from the book here, and read Jacob Weisberg's review in Slate.)



Mutations, by Beck (Geffen/DGC). Beck sheds the hip-hop style of his Grammy-winning album Odelay in favor of a more folk-influenced, melodic sound. Critics call it "his prettiest record to date" (Nathan Brackett, Rolling Stone) but predict that the move will disappoint fans drawn by the irony-laced style of the last album. (Michael Hirschorn, editor in chief of Spin, and Gerald Marzorati, editorial director of the New York Times Magazine, discuss the album this week in Slate's "Music Club." Also, check out this illustrated, in-depth exploration of Beck's fashion choices.)

Recent "Summary Judgment" columns



Movie--Apt Pupil;


Book--King of the World: The Rise of Muhammad Ali, by David Remnick;


Book--Evening, by Susan Minot;

Book--Bech at Bay: A Quasi-Novel, by John Updike.


Movie--Bride of Chucky;

Movie--Practical Magic;

Theater--Corpus Christi, by Terrence McNally (Manhattan Theatre Club);

Music--Live: 1966, by Bob Dylan;

Book--The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver.

Movie--Holy Man;

Movie--The Mighty;


Movie--A Night at the Roxbury;

Dance--Swan Lake (Neil Simon Theatre, New York City);

Book--Work in Progress, by Michael Eisner with Tony Schwartz;

Book--Pure Drivel, by Steve Martin.


Movie--What Dreams May Come;


Book--I Married a Communist, by Philip Roth;

Television--The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer;

Art--"Van Gogh's Van Goghs: Masterpieces From the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam."

--Eliza Truitt