Highlights from the week in criticism.
Dec. 24 1998 3:30 AM




The Prince of Egypt (DreamWorks SKG). Measured praise for DreamWorks' animated version of the Moses story. Biggest plus: The animation is glorious, especially the parting of the Red Sea and a neat sequence with dancing hieroglyphics. Biggest minus: the clunky musical numbers, which "hang like cinder blocks" around the neck of the production (Jay Carr, the Boston Globe). Critics also complain that the movie is short on emotional power, partly because "it tries to do too much" and be all things to all audiences (Michael Wilmington, the Chicago Tribune). (David Edelstein says the film "feels as if it might have been called Indiana Moses and the Temple of Doom." Click here to read the rest of his review in Slate.)

You've Got Mail (Warner Bros.). Director/co-writer Nora Ephron's pleasant trifle works because Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan star in it. In this Upper West Side update of Ernst Lubitsch's The Shop Around the Corner, Ryan plays a "lemony-fresh children's bookshop owner" (Rod Dreher, the New York Post) about to be put out of business by the discount megabookstore owner Hanks. The two meet in cyberspace; the rest is thumb twiddling until they "solve their problems, fall into each other's arms and get down to the old rumpy-pumpy" (Roger Ebert, the Chicago Sun-Times). Fun, say the critics, as long as you can believe that "lurking in the next AOL chat room might be a Tom Hanks or a Meg Ryan and not some drooling 300-pound loser with bad skin" (Michael O'Sullivan, the Washington Post). (Read Edelstein's review, in which he says Ephron's movies "go down easy, like Muzak," here.)

The General (Sony Pictures Classics). Raves for this biopic of infamous Irish thief Martin Cahill ("The General"): It "belongs on a long list of history's best gangster movies" (Mike Clark, USA Today). John Boorman won Best Director at Cannes for the film. Jon Voight gives a fine understated performance as a police inspector, Brendan Gleeson's turn as Cahill is a "tour de force ... first rate" (Dreher, the New York Post), and the photography is a "seductively beautiful black and white" (Janet Maslin, the New York Times). The New Republic's Stanley Kauffmann gives the film its only pan, saying that Voight performs well below his abilities and that Boorman's directing is a "disappointment." (Edelstein says the film "isn't an emotional grabber. But on its own terms it's nearly perfect." Read the rest of his review here. To find out more about the real Martin Cahill, click here for links to the Irish media.)



Blind Man's Bluff: The Untold Story of American Submarine Espionage, by Sherry Sontag and Christopher Drew, with Annette Lawrence Drew (Public Affairs). This exposé of American submarine espionage is "an evocative and important look at the cold war," says Timothy Naftali in the New York Times Book Review. Told with the color and pacing of a spy novel, the book is full of firsthand accounts from the men who served on the underwater spying missions, though critics complain that the writers--a former New York Times reporter and a current one--are insufficiently skeptical about inflated claims to heroism. But the book is full of gems, such as the story of a massive wiretapping device placed on a Soviet underwater communication cable that, when found by the Russians, had "Property of the United States Government" printed on it. (Read the first chapter here, courtesy of the New York Times [free registration required].)

Opened Ground: Selected Poems, 1966-1996, by Seamus Heaney (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). Unanimous praise for this selection of Heaney's poems, which "eloquently confirms his status as the most skilful and profound poet writing in English today" (Edward Mendelson, the New York Times Book Review). The book includes excerpts from his translation of Sophocles and his Nobel lecture, but more important, it features a wide selection of his poems, charting his progress from unknown to Nobel laureate. The collection "exhibits the kind of imaginative eclecticism that characterizes writers of the first order" (Kevin Driscoll, the Washington Times). (Read selections from Opened Ground at the New York Times Web site.)

The Unknown Matisse: A Life of Henri Matisse, The Early Years, 1869-1908, by Hilary Spurling (Knopf). Reviewers hail this biography as "a work of deep research and intense concentration, full of archive-sweat, legwork and looking" (Julian Barnes, the New York Times Book Review), not to mention a great read. Most notable is the revelation that a financial scandal involving close family friends forced Matisse to quit the experimental phase he was starting and focus on more salable works: "Spurling brushes aside all our preconceptions about the painter to reveal a personality--and a personal history--none of us had guessed at" (Richard Dorment, the New York Review of Books). Also praised is the insight into the role Matisse's wife, Amélie, played in fostering his talents. This volume covers the first 40 years of the painter's life; reviewers are eager to read the second volume. Sole drawback: Spurling is "not an especially penetrating commentator on painting" (Kenneth Baker, the San Francisco Chronicle). (Read the first chapter, courtesy of the New York Times.)

Recent "Summary Judgment" columns


  • Movie--Shakespeare in Love;
  • Movie--Star Trek: Insurrection;
  • Movie--Rushmore;
  • Movie--A Simple Plan;
  • Movie--Jack Frost;
  • Television--The Tempest (NBC);
  • Theater--The Blue Room, by David Hare (Cort Theatre, New York City).

  • Movie--Psycho;
  • Movie--Central Station;
  • Movie--Hard Core Logo;
  • Movie--Little Voice;
  • Book--Amsterdam, by Ian McEwan;
  • Art--"Edo: Art in Japan 1615-1868" (National Gallery of Art, Washington);
  • Theater--Electra, by Sophocles (Ethel Barrymore Theater, New York City).

  • Movie--Babe: Pig in the City;
  • Movie--Home Fries;
  • Movie--Jerry Springer: Ringmaster;
  • Movie--Very Bad Things;
  • Theater--On the Town;
  • Book--The Rum Diary: The Long Lost Novel, by Hunter S. Thompson.

  • Movie--Enemy of the State;
  • Movie--The Rugrats Movie;
  • Movie--Waking Ned Devine;
  • Movie--A Bug's Life;
  • Book--I Will Bear Witness: A Diary of the Nazi Years, 1933-1941, by Victor Klemperer;
  • Book--American Beach: A Saga of Race, Wealth, and Memory, by Russ Rymer;
  • Television--Winchell (HBO).