Bad Instinct, Hideous Men

Bad Instinct, Hideous Men

Bad Instinct, Hideous Men

Highlights from the week in criticism.
June 9 1999 3:00 AM

Bad Instinct, Hideous Men

Movies

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Instinct (Buena Vista Pictures). Critics skewer this psychodrama starring Anthony Hopkins as a primatologist who clubs two park rangers to death while living in the wild with a band of gorillas, and Cuba Gooding Jr. as the hotshot psychologist assigned to draw out his story. The plot rips off the familiar one-on-one mind games of The Silence of the Lambs and adds up to nothing more than "a greatest-hits collection of plot devices and emotional cues from such films as Gorillas in the Mist and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" (John Anderson, the Los Angeles Times). (Click here to watch the trailer, and here for David Edelstein's review in Slate.)

Limbo (Sony Pictures Entertainment). Good reviews for writer-director John Sayles' (Lone Star) latest drama: "moving and empathetic ... Few directors are more instinctively caring, or provide for more moments of grace between characters" (Kenneth Turan, the Los Angeles Times). The film, set in Alaska, follows two middle-aged loners (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio and David Strathairn) who engage in a tentative romance. Halfway through the film, the plot suddenly turns into a survivalist action adventure. Several critics say this transition is rough but ultimately forgive the film: "If this oddly structured film feels like two short stories stuck together, there is enough solid glue joining them that they resonate off one another deeply" (Stephen Holden, the New York Times). Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly dissents, calling the film "an earnest, dogged, squarely rendered wisp of a movie." (For more on Sayles, this page has a biography, filmography, and news.)

Buena Vista Social Club (Artisan Entertainment). Wim Wenders' documentary about the Cuban musical group of the same name gets consistent raves. Not only are the live performances transcendent ("the music, in its acoustic beauty and power, jumps off the screen," says Peter Watrous in the New York Times), the scenes of Havana are spectacular, and the story of the artists' recent professional rebirth is gripping. Many of the performers are in their 70s and 80s and had not played music for years--one was working shining shoes, another hadn't had his own instrument for almost a decade--until Ry Cooder brought them together to record and perform. (Click here to buy the album that won them a Grammy last year.)

Books

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Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, by David Foster Wallace (Little, Brown). Wallace's second collection of stories is roundly seen as a disappointment. Hailed as one of the best writers of his generation in 1996 when he published the immense novel Infinite Jest, Wallace irks the critics with this collection, which is mainly a series of sketches describing extremely unpleasant and misogynistic men. Though a few stories are on par with his earlier work, most reviews find the collection riddled with self-referential tics and self-consciousness. The New York Times' Michiko Kakutani comes down the hardest, turning in a scathing review in which she calls the book "an airless, tedious production" that "represents a sharp falling off in ambition, nuance and vision from Mr. Wallace's previous works of fiction." (Click here to read Slate's recent "Book Club" on Brief Interviews.)

Juneteenth, by Ralph Ellison, edited by John F. Callahan (Random House). "Uneven" is the word used most often to describe Ellison's posthumous second novel, which he had been working on for 40 years before he died. Pared down to 384 pages from the sprawling, unfinished, thousand-page manuscript by Ellison's literary executor, John F. Callahan, the novel leaves many critics wondering about the enormous amount of material not included and whether the novel can even truly be called Ellison's book. Ellison envisioned a multi-voiced symphonic saga about race in America, but Callahan reduced it to a single linear story with a few central characters--notably omitting excerpts Ellison had published, such as the story "Cadillac Flambé." Reviewers say that sections are on par with Invisible Man--especially the set pieces, dialogue, and riffs--but the novel as a whole doesn't match up: It "provides the reader with intimations of the grand vision animating Ellison's 40-year project, but it also feels disappointingly provisional and incomplete" (Kakutani, the New York Times). (Slate's Jacob Weisberg found the novel more satisfying than most critics. Click here to read his review.)

Music

Death: Mel Torme (1925-1999). The jazz, swing, and pop singer died of a stroke Saturday at the age of 73. Nicknamed "The Velvet Fog" for his smooth voice, Torme "sang with a geniality that seemed ingrained and a voice that was incapable of making an unpleasant sound" (Holden, the New York Times). He was most famous for his scat improvisations and enjoyed a renaissance in the 1990s, when, after a lifetime of performing, he was discovered by a younger generation interested in lounge music. Never a true superstar, he managed to succeed mainly because he continued to perform and his voice miraculously seemed to improve with age. He was also a songwriter, and his most famous composition was "The Christmas Song"--better known as "Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire." (Click here to see a listing of his albums.)

Eliza Truitt, a former editor at Slate, now works as a wedding photographer in Seattle.