The Phantom Menace Strikes Back!

The Phantom Menace Strikes Back!

The Phantom Menace Strikes Back!

Highlights from the week in criticism.
May 25 1999 10:28 PM

The Phantom Menace Strikes Back!

Movies

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The Phantom Menace (20th Century Fox). A trickle of praise for The Phantom Menace after the first wave of negative reviews. The film "offers a happy surprise: it's up to snuff," writes Janet Maslin in the New York Times. "[T]he Star Wars franchise was funnier and scrappier when it was new. But it simply wasn't capable of this." The Chicago Sun-Times' Roger Ebert awards the film 3 1/2 stars. Peter Travers' generally negative review in Rolling Stone concedes that the movie is "loaded with cool stuff" and that "in terms of visual sophistication ... Lucas ranks with the masters." The majority continues to slam the film. Gripes: 1) wooden acting, 2) bad dialogue, 3) confusing plot, 4) weak storytelling. (Click here for a synopsis of last week's negative reviews and here to read David Edelstein's review of the film in Slate.)

Notting Hill (Universal Pictures). Adoring early reviews for this Julia Roberts-Hugh Grant romantic comedy that many critics are calling Four Weddings and a Funeral, Part 2. Both films were written by Richard Curtis and both cover the same turf--Grant falling for a ravishing but distant American woman--in this case Roberts, who stretches to play ... a skittish Hollywood megastar. Entertainment Weekly's Lisa Schwarzbaum calls the film "blithe and exhilarating," and Time's Richard Schickel calls it "utterly charming--and very smart." (Click here for a Roberts fan site, here for a Grant fan site, or here for information on the London neighborhood where the film is set.)

Music

Jesse & the 8th Street Kidz,by Jesse Camp (PGD/Hollywood). Critics are surprisingly kind to MTV VJ Jesse Camp's foray into the world of rock. The sound is equal parts glam, punk, and metal, and features Cheap Trick guitarist Rick Nielsen. Rolling Stone gives it three stars and says "believe it or not, his album is a genuinely rocking detention-room blowout, a spew of motormouthed microwaved teen rebellion upholding the noble legacy of Twisted Sister" (Rob Sheffield). Many, though, find the album as irritating as Camp's goofy on-screen presence and call it "ersatz rock--all guns and poses" (David Browne, Entertainment Weekly). (Find out more about Jesse here.)

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Books

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Woman: An Intimate Geography, by Natalie Angier (Houghton Mifflin). Reviews--published and killed--of New York Times science writer Angier's feminist exploration of women's biology stir up a journalistic controversy about conflict of interest. After the Times published a review by Marilyn Yalom in its daily review slot calling the book "dazzling," the Boston Globe reported that Angier had positively reviewed Yalom's A History of the Breast two years ago. Also, the Times' Sunday book review section killed a second review of the book, a negative one by theorist Helena Cronin. Book Review Editor Charles McGrath defended delivering the spike to Cronin's piece: "I didn't like the tone of the review--I thought it was too snarky. ... And I thought the review failed to address the whole range of the book." Cronin told the Globe that Angier's book was "totally idiotic. ... [S]he was so wrong-headed in the areas where I knew the science that, even if there were areas where she might have been correct, I could no longer trust her." After killing Cronin's review, the Sunday Times ran a gushing review of the book ("it is a tour de force, a wonderful, entertaining and informative book"--Abraham Verghese). But the paper also apologized for violating the Times' conflict-of-interest policy by assigning the book review to Yalom in the first place. Back to the book: Other publications give it a warm response--Joan Jacobs Brumberg writes in the Washington Post that Angier "eviscerates two ... old saws: that hard science must be boring and that feminists have no sense of humor." Other reviewers are put off by Angier's ecstatic, florid prose. (Read the first chapter here [requires free registration].)

Music for Torching, by A.M. Homes (Rob Weisbach Books). Mainly positive reviews for Homes' latest novel, which, like her other work, is designed to outrage: A corporation man gets genital tattoos, a bored suburban couple burn down their house on a whim, etc. Dissenters find the novel's transgressive bent a touch stale, but the pack praises it. The Westchester, N.Y., setting makes the story read like "Cheever country on crack" (Norah Vincent, the Boston Globe). "People will be talking about this one" (Kirkus Reviews). (Read an excerpt of the novel here.)

The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing, by Melissa Bank (Viking). The critics love this collection of interconnected stories of a woman who navigates the worlds of love and dating from the age of 14 to the age of 35. "[F]ast and funny with real moments of poignancy" (Yahlin Chang, Newsweek) and "one of those rare occasions when a highly touted book fulfills the excitement" (Publishers Weekly). Some critics detect shades of the single-gal dippiness of Bridget Jones's Diary, but most say that this is much more witty and sophisticated. (Francis Coppola has hired Bank to write a screenplay of the book.) An overtly negative review in the New York Times Book Review, by Courtney Weaver, calls the tone "self-consciously humorous"; says the wit at times "disintegrates into cutesy one-liners"; and complains that the stories are plagued by a "certain generic weariness." (Read one of Bank's stories, "The Worst Thing a Suburban Girl Could Imagine.")

Snap Judgment

Movie

Love Letter (DreamWorks). Kate Capshaw (a k a Mrs. Steven Spielberg) stars in a so-so romantic comedy about an older divorced woman whose life is changed by the discovery of a love letter. It's plagued by "bland dialogue and dull sitcom acting," writes the New York Times' Stephen Holden.