Gross Conduct

Gross Conduct

Gross Conduct

Highlights from the week in criticism.
July 14 1999 3:00 AM

Gross Conduct

 Movies

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American Pie (Universal Pictures). Mixed reviews but a boffo box-office turnout for this teen sex comedy about four high-school seniors determined to lose their virginity. Critics take one of two positions. 1) The gross-out scenes (one youth shtups an apple pie; another drinks a beer laced with semen) are just "sucker bait to entice teenage audiences into the tent to see a movie that is as sweet and sincere at heart as anything Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland ever experienced" (Kenneth Turan, the Los Angeles Times). 2) Grossness is the film's essence: "[D]irty jokes are inserted at regular intervals like pop songs to perk up the action ... an upper-middle-class Porky's, American Pie is unable to transcend its own dirty mind. Among this year's bumper crop of teenage movies, it is the shallowest and most prurient" (Stephen Holden, the New York Times). The most positive take comes from the Washington Post's Michael O'Sullivan, who writes that it's a "warped, hysterical and--believe it or not--sweet little gem of a movie." (Click here to read David Edelstein's review in Slate and here to see the trailer that includes footage of the teen-pastry union.)

Arlington Road (Sony Screen Gems). Most critics are unimpressed by this thriller starring Jeff Bridges as a professor who becomes convinced that his new neighbor, played by Tim Robbins, is a domestic terrorist. Roger Ebert (the Chicago Sun-Times) speaks for most critics when he complains that the film "begins well and makes good points, but it flies off the rails in the last 30 minutes. The climax is so implausible we stop caring and start scratching our heads." The New York Times' Janet Maslin departs from the pack, calling the film a "crackerjack thriller ... well paced and cleverly constructed." (Click here to watch the trailer.)

Books

True at First Light, by Ernest Hemingway, edited by Patrick Hemingway (Scribner). Critics heap scorn on this edited version of an unfinished "fictional memoir" left behind by Hemingway and crucify the writer's children for their now routine desecration of their father's reputation (see the line of furniture, eyeglasses, and shotguns licensed by Hemingway Ltd.). The prose in this "literary violation" reads "like a parody of Hemingway" (Deirdre Donahue, USA Today). It "reflects a marvelous writer's disastrous loss of talent" (Kenneth S. Lynn, National Review); a "sad, bloated, inert so-called book" (L.S. Klepp, Entertainment Weekly). The New York Times' Michiko Kakutani, after opening her review with an embarrassing parody of Hemingway's style, writes that "his angular language has turned maudlin and flabby." The most positive review comes from James Wood in the Times Book Review: "The famous style occasionally flares into fineness ... the book is never quite uninteresting." (Click here to find out about the legality of publishing a dead person's unfinished work, here to read the first chapter of this book, and here to check out the New York Times' special on Hemingway including photos, interviews, and essays.)

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The Metaphysical Touch, by Sylvia Brownrigg (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). Positive reviews for this philosophical novel about an e-mail romance. Although the plot seems ripped from You've Got Mail, the novel is far more sophisticated in its execution--a Milan Kundera-like inquiry into ontology, the uniqueness of e-mail communication, and human existence in general. Brownrigg's forte is her ability to emulate the "curiously banal, clever-clever, quasi-poetic style that seems to afflict so many inhabitants of cyberspace" (Geoff Nicholson, the New York Times Book Review) in the many epistolary sections of the book, and she "wonderfully captures the ghostly dance of presence and absence that can characterize digital relationships" (Erik Davis, the Voice Literary Supplement). (Click here to read the first chapter.)

A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and the Final Tragedy of America's Last Years in Vietnam, by Lewis Sorley (Harcourt Brace). A retired CIA official and Army officer, Sorley posits a new theory on the Vietnam War: The United States won, but the military victory was immediately undercut by diplomatic backtracking and congressional cowardice. The New York Times Book Review assigned Jeffrey Record to review the book, which seems an odd choice considering that Record just published a book titled The Wrong War: Why We Lost in Vietnam. Record predictably refutes Sorley's thesis ("How does one explain Saigon's fall when, according to Sorley, we had won the war by late 1971?"), but he concedes that "A Better War is a comprehensive and long-overdue examination of the immediate post-Tet offensive years, perhaps the most fascinating years of the war." Other reviewers praise Sorley's research and writing: "A first-rate challenge to the conventional wisdom about American military performance in Vietnam" (Publishers Weekly). (Click here to buy the book.)

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, by J. K. Rowling (Scholastic Trade). The third installment in the British children's series went on sale in England last Thursday, resulting in after-school stampedes on bookstores. Although not available in America for another two months, advance orders have already placed Prisoner of Azkaban at No. 6 on the Amazon best-seller list--and positions one and two are held by the other Harry Potter titles. (The New York Times list has the two available Potter books at positions three and four.) The subject of the new volume is the same as the rest of the series: the life of young wizard Harry Potter, who attends a boarding school for sorcerers. The critics call this one the best Potter adventure yet: It "blends the banal and the fantastic, the everyday and the magical, all with a devilish humour and a timeless sense of style. Spellbinding, enchanting, bewitching stuff" (Paul Davies, the DailyMirror). A few gripe that the series is just a formula boys' boarding-school adventure story gussied up with magical trappings (see last week's discussion in Slate's Breakfast Table), but young readers don't seem to care: According to Bloomsbury, the book's U.K. publisher, Azkaban broke an opening-day sales record--16,853 copies in the first 100 minutes on sale. (Click here to order an advance copy.)

Music

Friendly Fire, by Joe Lovano and Greg Osby (Blue Note Records). Excellent reviews for the collaboration between two of the '90s' most acclaimed jazz saxophonists. "The telepathy flows on this much-awaited meeting. ... Both men are noted risk-takers and cutting-edge improvisers whose penchant for the maniacal makes them ideal partners" (Karl Stark, the Philadelphia Inquirer). Gene Seymour writes in Newsday that "there's a sense of play between the two that's almost kinda sweet. Both are assertive. Neither gets in the other's way." The only sour note comes from Don Heckman in the Los Angeles Times, who objects not to the music so much as to the structure: "[T]he basic jam session format ... simply fails to sustain interest for the entire album." (Click here to find out more about Lovano and here to find out more about Osby.)