Highlights from the week in criticism.
April 8 1999 3:30 AM




The Matrix (Warner Bros.). Keanu Reeves stars in this complex, dystopic sci-fi thriller. Critics give high marks to the computer-enhanced special effects but are divided on the merits of the ambitious plot and the everything-but-the-kichen-sink filmic provenance, from Soylent Green to Terminator 2 to Hong Kong actioners. For some the effects are enough: It's "one big, fat, honking comic book of a sci-fi-martial-arts adventure flick. ... It has stu-freakin'-pendous special effects, hipster sang-froid out the wazoo and a story line that makes only as much sense as it has to" (Michael O'Sullivan, the Washington Post). A grudgingly appreciative Janet Maslin says that at its best the movie brings "Hong Kong action style home to audiences in a mainstream American adventure with big prospects as a cult classic and with the future very much in mind" (the New York Times). Others criticize the convoluted story line and call it strictly genre and strictly for "guys in their teens and 20s, for whom the script's pretentious mumbo-jumbo of undergraduate mythology, religious mysticism and technobabble could even be a plus rather than a dramatic liability" (Todd McCarthy, Daily Variety). (To see the trailer and some fine Keanu pics, visit this fan site; check out David Edelstein's review in Slate.)

10 Things I Hate About You (Buena Vista Pictures). Critics, many of whom admitted they had been gearing up for "10 things I hate about this movie" reviews, are charmed, if not in love with this week's Shakespeare offering. (The source is The Taming of the Shrew.) Entertainment Weekly's Owen Gleiberman writes it "may be the cheekiest 'literary' update yet--a post-riot grrrl gloss" of the play. Many gush over the foxy young star, Julia Stiles. Complaints are mainly a result of critics' upscale-high-school-caper-film fatigue. A few find the film irritating: Daily Variety's Dennis Harvey says, "it lurches all over the map, encompassing dialogue both inspired and juvenile." (Visit the official site.)

Cookie's Fortune (October Films). Critical response to Robert Altman's warm 'n' fuzzy Southern Gothic tale covers the spectrum. Most are tickled pink: "a small miracle" with "an irresistibly companionable spirit" (David Denby, The New Yorker). The classic Altman deep bench (including Patricia Neal, Glenn Close, Julianne Moore, Chris O'Donnell, and Liv Tyler) does not disappoint, and most play twinklingly kooky oddballs. However, several critics are not so keen. More than one call it "Altman lite" (Jack Mathews, the Daily News) and say "[t]he fabled Altman atmosphere fails to jell" (Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly). A small cadre is seriously disappointed: "another footnote to an Altman career that is fast becoming all footnotes" (Richard Corliss, Time) or, more simply, "[h]e falters again" (Stanley Kauffmann, the New Republic). (For more on director Robert Altman, visit this site, which has links to interviews and essays about him, and read Edelstein's review Friday in Slate.)

A Walk on the Moon (Miramax Films). Mixed reviews, tending toward the negative, for this tale of sexual liberation set in 1969. A 32-year-old Jewish housewife who married too young is on vacation in the Catskills with her two kids and mother-in-law when she meets a sexy, young blouse peddler. The rest? As the Chicago Sun-Times' Roger Ebert says, it's "one small step for the Blouse Man, a giant leap for Pearl Kantrowitz." Time's Corliss writes that the film's nice, if "you look past the gaffes and clichés." On the positive side, most say the acting is great, and though the film "doesn't take enormous chances," it is nevertheless "extremely satisfying" (Denby, The New Yorker). Slate's Edelstein is more positive than most, praising the "deliciously resonant dual setting: a Catskills summer community to which middle-class Jews from the city migrate to swim and eat and play mah-jongg, and the gathering hippies at nearby Woodstock." (Read the rest of his review.)


The Out-of-Towners (Paramount Pictures). Goldie Hawn and Steve Martin star in a remake of Neil Simon's 1970 film that's "so feeble and unfocussed as to make the Farrelly brothers of There's Something About Mary appear to have suckled at the bosom of Aristophanes" (Lawrence Van Gelder, the New York Times). All critics agree; few put it so well. The plot: A nice Midwestern couple goes through the wringer in Manhattan (lost luggage, muggings, etc). The film's only breath of fresh air is John Cleese, who plays a snobby hotel manager, recycling Basil Fawlty to good effect. (For more on Martin, check out this site.)



Morgan: American Financier, by Jean Strouse (Random House). Excellent reviews for this doorstop-sized biography on the legendary financier: "a magnificent, insightful study" (Maury Klein, the Wall Street Journal). Reviewers are impressed by Strouse's extensive research, which turned up a truckload of new details on Morgan's life and, more importantly, by the balanced portrait that she provides of a man whose biographies have to date been colored by vindictive accounts from contemporaries with axes to grind. The strongest negative comment comes from the New York Times Book Review, which warns that "readers without an interest in business and financial history may find some of this material wearisome" (Richard Lingeman). (To buy the book click here.)

The Times of My Life and My Life With the Times, by Max Frankel (Random House). Decent reviews for former New York Times executive editor Max Frankel's memoirs: Ward Just calls it a "a smart, tough, scrupulous book" in the New York Times Book Review; in that fair journal's traditional negative-comment spot (the penultimate paragraph) all Just can come up with is that there's "a whiff of the puritan about Max Frankel, and perhaps also the rustle of score-settling." Some reviewers note that his personal life--if you can even say he had one--gets short shrift, and most say Frankel's time at the helm is not half as interesting as his flight from Germany in his childhood and his days as a young correspondent. Perhaps the best backhanded compliment is provided by another New York Times review, this one from the daily paper: Richard Kluger writes that the book has "only occasional spasms of the immodesty that almost by definition infects all who venture into autobiography." (To buy the book click here.)


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Recent "Summary Judgment" columns

  • Movie--Mod Squad;
  • Movie--EdTV;
  • Movie--20 Dates;
  • Television--Futurama;
  • Book--All Too Human: A Political Education, by George Stephanopoulos;
  • Book--For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, by Nathan Englander.


  • Movie--True Crime;
  • Movie--The King and I;
  • Movie--Forces of Nature;
  • Television--The Oscars;
  • Book--Years of Renewal, by Henry Kissinger.

  • Movie--The Deep End of the Ocean;
  • Movie--The Corruptor;
  • Movie--The Rage: Carrie 2;
  • Movie--Wing Commander;
  • Death--Stanley Kubrick;
  • Book--Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War, by Mark Bowden.

  • Movie--Analyze This;
  • Movie--Cruel Intentions;
  • Movie--Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels;
  • Book--Monica's Story, by Andrew Morton;
  • Theater--Annie Get Your Gun;
  • Theater--Bright Lights, Big City.