Highlights from the week in criticism.
March 4 1999 3:30 AM




8MM (Columbia Pictures). Nicolas Cage plays a straight-arrow private eye who enters the seamy world of hard-core porn in pursuit of information about a girl in a snuff film. Critics' reactions are all over the map. Roger Ebert gives the film three stars and says "it deals with the materials of violent exploitation films, but in a non-pornographic way; it would rather horrify than thrill ... it is a real film. Not a slick exploitation film with all the trappings of depravity but none of the consequences" (the Chicago Sun-Times). Several critics take the exact opposite stance: The Los Angeles Times' Kenneth Turan calls it "an unapologetically sleazy ordeal that delights in twisting the knife, a tawdry piece of work whose only raison d'être is making the skin crawl in the name of box office profit." Most reactions to the film are negative, but each critic cites a different flaw. Odd man out: Stephen Hunter of the Washington Post, so unfazed by the subject matter as to call the film "insipid" and "mild." (Read David Edelstein's review in Slate.)

200 Cigarettes (Paramount Pictures). Critics call this piece of early '80s nostalgia a "dismally unfunny farce" (Todd McCarthy, Daily Variety). There are plenty of interesting stars (Christina Ricci, Courtney Love, Ben Affleck, Janeane Garofalo), but the script, which follows a gaggle of young folks on their way to a New Year's Eve bash in Manhattan's East Village, is said to be unsalvageable. The film's only high note is a soundtrack with some 49 songs that evoke the era better than any of the actors do. (Check out the outfits on the official site.)

TheOtherSister (Buena Vista Pictures). Sugarcoated and manipulative is how critics describe this Garry Marshall film about two mentally handicapped young adults (Giovanni Ribisi and Juliette Lewis) who fall in love. Ebert lays into the film, saying it's "shameless in its use of mental retardation as a gimmick, a prop, and a plot device. Anyone with any knowledge of retardation is likely to find this film offensive" (the Chicago Sun-Times). Those who condemn the film say its real message is "[m]entally challenged people in love say the darnedest things!" (Desson Howe, the Washington Post). However, quite a few softies like it: "Lewis and Ribisi eventually win you over" (Turan, the Los Angeles Times); "by the storybook conclusion I was cheering them on, against all critical instinct" (Rod Dreher, the New York Post). Stephen Holden of the New York Times opens his review with what sounds like a joke ("A beautifully acted love story") but isn't; he's the film's biggest fan. (Check out this site devoted to Ribisi.)



The Houdini Girl, by Martyn Bedford (Pantheon). Bedford's sophomore novel, after the acclaimed Acts of Revision, is called a gripping but flawed work. The story follows a young magician uncovering the details of his girlfriend's recent death and unpeeling the layers of deception that she had wrapped herself in. The thriller side of the book is well crafted, and the dialogue, pacing, and plotting keep reviewers engaged: "Bedford is the genuine article, a writer of unmistakable flair and accomplishment" (Carey Harrison, the New York Times Book Review), but many reviewers say he does not show the same skill level in revealing his characters' emotional lives. (Read the first chapter, courtesy of the New York Times [requires free registration].)

Perfect Murder, Perfect Town, by Lawrence Schiller (HarperCollins). Jumbled, messy, and "frustrating to read" (Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, the New York Times) is how most reviewers describe this rushed-to-press book about the JonBenet Ramsey murder. Not only does the book repeat and contradict itself, but the author doesn't even try to offer an answer to the most essential question of all: whodunit? Some reviewers speculate that the shoddiness is a result of the book being published before it was ready, in order to fill the post-Monica vacuum. (Read this excerpt that ran in Newsweek.)



Not About Nightingales (Circle in the Square Theatre, New York City). This recently discovered early Tennessee Williams play has been stunningly staged--critics praise the acting, direction, and costumes--but they debate whether the work itself is amateurish or fully formed. The New York Times' Ben Brantley concedes that "there are definitely moments to wince over" and that it is "the work of a man still unsure of his voice" but still sees enough flashes of brilliance to make the performance worthwhile. Daily Variety's Charles Isherwood agrees, saying the play "is manifestly not a piece of juvenilia." Some critics are less generous and note a heavy reliance on melodrama and film noir tropes; the Daily News' Fintan O'Toole writes that the play is no "lost masterpiece." (Find out more about the show at sidewalk.com.)


Recent "Summary Judgment" columns

  • Movie--October Sky;
  • Movie--Jawbreaker;
  • Movie--Office Space;
  • Music--The Hot Rock, by Sleater-Kinney;
  • Book--Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith, by Anne Lamott;
  • Book--The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory, by Brian R. Greene.


  • Movie--Blast From the Past;
  • Movie--Message in a Bottle;
  • Movie--My Favorite Martian;
  • Book--The Testament, by John Grisham;
  • Book--South of the Border, West of the Sun,by Haruki Murakami;
  • Theater--Death of a Salesman (Eugene O'Neill Theatre, New York City).

  • 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.