Highlights from the week in criticism.
April 29 1999 3:30 AM




Pushing Tin (20th Century Fox). The first half of this film offers an exhilarating peek into the high-pressure world of air traffic controllers, but despite the best efforts of a choice ensemble cast (John Cusack, Cate Blanchett, Billy Bob Thornton, Angelina Jolie), the movie tanks by the end. "[F]or a while, at least, the sheer journalistic energy of what we're seeing grips us in a casually exotic way" (Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly). The trouble: The plot is horrendous and ends up with an "obligatory traffic control emergency crisis" (Janet Maslin, the New York Times) that takes all the spice out of what had been an unusual study of group dynamics. (Watch the trailer and clips from the film here [requires free registration].)

Election (Paramount Pictures). Critics rave: "The best and brightest high-school adventure since the groundbreaking Heathers ... a nearly flawless little film" (Kenneth Turan, the Los Angeles Times). Reese Witherspoon turns in a spectacular performance as a ferociously ambitious goody-goody go-getter who's running for student council president. Matthew Broderick is the genial teacher who becomes irritated with Reese's smugness and tries to rig the election. The three-candidate runoff that results is a loose parody of the '96 presidential election, which makes for "a moral fable with rare comic bite" (Peter Travers, Rolling Stone). (Slate's David Edelstein calls the film "exuberantly caustic." Visit this site dedicated to the expecting Witherspoon and her fiance Ryan Phillippe.)

Lovers of the Arctic Circle (Fine Line Features). Critics have a hard time explaining just what it is they like so much about this Spanish film of fate and love, but they like it. Maslin says one "needn't really articulate what makes it so haunting. The evidence is on the screen" (the New York Times). Joe Morgenstern writes, "Lest I, too, go round in circles trying to convey the dense texture of this exquisite film, I'll simply say that [it] seizes your mind and stays in your heart" (the Wall Street Journal). The story follows two lovers who meet at the age of 8 and cycle in and out of each other's lives through adulthood. Peppered with wordplay, startling visual imagery, and near misses by the two lovers, the film has only one flaw, according to critics, namely that all the fancy footwork verges on becoming too self-conscious. (Visit the film's official site for a sample of the film's peculiarities.)



Mule Variations, by Tom Waits (Epitaph). Tom Waits' first album in six years, which ditches the junkyard noise experimentation of his previous releases for a blues approach, gets passable reviews from Rolling Sone and Spin. "Waits seems to have peaked as a songwriter with 1985's Rain Dogs," writes Ben Ratliff, "and he's still writing outtakes from that record" (Rolling Stone). Spin's Sarah Vowell says, "Waits' coolie raps often feel a little fake, like he's working at having a good time." Robert Hilburn of the Los Angeles Times dissents, calling Mule Variations "personal and accessible"; as does Billboard, "Waits digs deep and wide into his song psyche and pulls up material rooted in blues, gospel, and cabaret music but delivered with the utmost originality." (Listen to a track from the album here.)



Nabokov's 100th Birthday (April 23, 1999). The centennial of Vladimir Nabokov's birth is marked by the appearance of a biography of his wife, Véra (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov); a reissue of Speak, Memory; and a celebration staged by The New Yorker, Vintage books, and the PEN American Center. Critics praise Véra for the details it reveals about the Nabokovs' intense marriage--she was his "editor, typist, secretary, chauffeur, nursemaid, go-between, buffer, researcher and butterfly-catching companion" (Michiko Kakutani, the New York Times). But when you get down to it, "this is really a potted biography of Vladimir Nabokov, told from an unusual angle" (Michael Dirda, the Washington Post). The PEN celebration featured readings by and about the Nabokovs by Joyce Carol Oates, Dimitri Nabokov, David Remnick, and Véra author Stacy Schiff. The New York Public Library is also getting in on the action with an exhibit of Nabokov's manuscripts and personal effects, such as his glasses and butterfly net. (Click here to read a discussion on Speak, Memory and Véra in Slate. This multimedia exhibit on Nabokov on the New York Times' Web site includes recordings of him reading his work and a series of photos [free registration required].)



Byron: Child of Passion, Fool of Fame, by Benita Eisler (Knopf). The 800-page biography puts forth no new theories on the poet or on his times as it retells the juicy bits of his life. Sam Schulman complains in the Wall Street Journal that despite the excellent material, Eisler "cannot capture" the essence of Byron's power "because her earnestness misses his seductive combination of modesty, irony, self-doubt and self-confidence." (For more on Byron, visit this site which includes a portrait gallery and links to other poets' sites.)

Snap Judgment


Lost & Found (Warner Bros.). A "rancid little nothing of a movie" (Stephen Holden, the New York Times) that's a grim, gross wannabe Farrelly brothers flick. Stars David Spade. Thumbs down from all critics.  eXistenZ (Dimension Films). Good reviews for David Cronenberg's virtual reality flick that covers the same ground as the more popular The Matrix. Jennifer Jason Leigh stars as a video game designer who hides in a game of her own devising. Features a device called a "gristle gun."



Nylon. Supermodel Helena Christensen starts her own magazine; critics are mildly interested. It boasts interviews with Liv Tyler and Mike D and a layout far funkier than any other women's mag, but critics agree creative director Christensen is "without a doubt the magazine's biggest selling point" (Design Week).

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Recent "Summary Judgment" columns


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  • Movie--Go;
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  • Book--The Ground Beneath Her Feet, by Salman Rushdie;
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  • Movie--The Matrix;
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  • Book--Morgan: American Financier, by Jean Strouse;
  • Book--The Times of My Life and My Life With theTimes, by Max Frankel.

  • Movie--Mod Squad;
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  • Book--All Too Human: A Political Education, by George Stephanopoulos;
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