Highlights from the week in criticism.
Feb. 18 1999 3:30 AM




Blast From the Past (New Line Cinema). Blah reviews for this cutesy comedy about a family who emerges from a fallout shelter after 35 years. Once above ground, Brendan Fraser, reprising the naif he played in George of the Jungle and Encino Man, is smitten with a cynical and standoffish Alicia Silverstone. The film relies heavily on both Fraser's laughably outdated notions (at one point he exclaims, "Oh my lucky stars, it's a Negro!") and his budding romance with Silverstone, which make for amusingly fluffy stuff. Sissy Spacek and Christopher Walken, though, both stand out as Fraser's daffy frozen-in-time parents. (Click here to find out more about Fraser.)

Message in a Bottle (Warner Bros.). This screen adaptation of Nicholas Sparks' novel stars Kevin Costner and Robin Wright Penn as two lonely folks destined for each other. It's just as sappy as expected. Janet Maslin writes that the film has "the warm glow of a hazelnut coffee commercial" (the New York Times). Despite the fromage factor, great performances by Wright Penn and Paul Newman--who plays Costner's father "with the relaxed confidence of Michael Jordan shooting free throws in your driveway" (Roger Ebert, the Chicago Sun-Times)--make the film tolerable. (Find out more about Costner on Celebsite.)

My Favorite Martian (Buena Vista Pictures). Critics call this film spinoff of the 1960s TV show about a Martian (Christopher Lloyd) who falls to Earth and befriends an earthling (Jeff Daniels) "loud and labored" (Kevin Thomas, the Los Angeles Times). The film steamrollers viewers with a frenetic pace and loads of slapsticky special effects. Says Joe Morgenstern in the Wall Street Journal: It "swings between chaos and pandemonium, with occasional eruptions of bathroom humor." (This site has information on the original television show.)



The Testament, by John Grisham (Doubleday). The latest installment in the Grisham legal thriller franchise gets good press: It's "personal, moving and much deeper" than his previous books, writes Deirdre Donahue in USA Today. Critics say this one is better because Grisham goes beyond his usual dabbling in social causes and injects honest-to-God Christian spirituality, and with success: "Grisham's smart use of the suspense novel to explore questions of being and faith puts him squarely in the footsteps of Dickens and Graham Greene" (Publishers Weekly). A few reviewers find the overt Christianity preachy and self-righteous, but most say it improves an otherwise standard page-turner. (In his review of Grisham's The Street Lawyer in Slate, Malcolm Gladwell argues that Grisham is America's leading moralist.)

South of the Border, West of the Sun,by Haruki Murakami (Knopf). After the success of Murakami's epic The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, this novel of a middle-aged man's attempts to rekindle a romance with an elusive childhood friend disappoints critics. Murakami's aim is to "capture illegitimate passion's elusive madness," but he "falls short" (Elizabeth Ward, the Washington Post). This book lacks the scope of his earlier works, and at times the language dips into cliché, but some reviewers attribute this to a poor translation. Mary Hawthorne comes to his rescue in the New York Times Book Review, calling the novel a "wise and beautiful book ... full of hidden truths." (Read the first chapter, courtesy of the New York Times [requires free registration].)



Death of a Salesman (Eugene O'Neill Theatre, New York City). Strong reviews and boffo B.O. for this 50th anniversary production of the Arthur Miller perennial. Brian Dennehy's Willy Loman is "played with majestic, unnerving transparency" (Ben Brantley, the New York Times); Elizabeth Franz (as Linda Loman) draws equally ecstatic reviews. The production is said to re-establish Salesman as Miller's finest play and an American classic. Dissenters include Amy Gamerman of the Wall Street Journal, who says it's dated ("Salesman is showing its age") and Slate's Jacob Weisberg, who praises this production but calls the play itself "unrelieved and unchallenging." (Read the rest of Weisberg's review here.)


Recent "Summary Judgment" columns

  • Movie--Payback;
  • Movie--Simply Irresistible;
  • Movie--Rushmore;
  • Movie--Dry Cleaning;
  • Book--Werewolves in Their Youth, by Michael Chabon;
  • Theater--You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown.


  • Movie--She's All That;
  • Movie--The 24 Hour Woman;
  • Movie--Still Crazy;
  • Movie--My Name Is Joe;
  • Book--What Our Mothers Didn't Tell Us: Why Happiness Eludes the Modern Woman, by Danielle Crittenden;
  • Book--Amy and Isabelle, by Elizabeth Strout;
  • Book--Heavy Water, by Martin Amis.

  • Movie--Gloria;
  • Movie--Playing by Heart;
  • Movie--Another Day in Paradise;
  • Book--Reporting Live, by Lesley Stahl;
  • Book--Face-Time, by Erik Tarloff;
  • Book--Miss Nobody, by Tomek Tryzna.

  • Movie--Varsity Blues;
  • Movie--At First Sight;
  • Movie--In Dreams;
  • Book--Duane's Depressed, by Larry McMurtry;
  • Book--The Intuitionist, by Colson Whitehead;
  • Theater--Fosse: A Celebration in Song and Dance (Broadhurst Theatre, New York City).