Stanley Steamed

Stanley Steamed

Stanley Steamed

Highlights from the week in criticism.
July 21 1999 3:30 AM

Stanley Steamed

Movies

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Eyes Wide Shut (Warner Bros.). Thumbs go up, down, and every which way for the final film by director Stanley Kubrick, who died shortly after wrapping the movie. Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman star as a married couple entangled in sexual jealousy, but the critics focus largely on Kubrick's work. Roger Ebert (the Chicago Sun-Times) labels it "a worthy final chapter to a great director's career," and Janet Maslin (the New York Times) raves that it's his riskiest film and "a spellbinding addition to the Kubrick canon." Michiko Kakutani (the New York Times) begs to differ, complaining that the director's "meticulous, detail-oriented approach has sucked all spontaneity and passion from the picture." Most reviewers pillory the film's highly publicized group-sex scene, in which human figures were digitally inserted to avoid an NC-17 rating: "the most pompous orgy in the history of the movies" (David Denby, The New Yorker), and "one of the least erotic orgies ever filmed" (Kenneth Turan, the Los Angeles Times). (Click here for Slate critic David Edelstein's review and here for an "Explainer" on Arthur Schnitzler, who wrote the novella that Eyes Wide Shut is based on. Click here to see the trailers.)

The Blair Witch Project (Artisan Entertainment). A big hit at this year's Sundance Film Festival, this first feature produced by five film-school graduates from Florida steals some of Kubrick's opening-weekend thunder. Its mockumentary premise: Three young filmmakers disappear while trekking through the woods of Maryland in search of a local witch; a year later, their footage is found and presented as The Blair Witch Project. The trio get increasingly suspicious of each other as they hear eerie sounds in the night and find mysterious bundles of sticks hanging from trees, and by the end they're running for their lives. With its tiny budget of $75,000, the film cleverly keeps the evil off-screen: "Most of the time, it's what the three witch-searchers don't see--but fear--that gets our petrified juices flowing or curdling. This is low-tech inventiveness at its best" (Desson Howe, the Washington Post). BWP is "the new face of movie horror" (Peter Travers, Rolling Stone), and it ends with "as heart-stopping a climax as any the genre has seen in years" (Jay Carr, the Boston Globe). The Los Angeles Times' Kevin Thomas demurs, knocking it as "a clever, entertaining stunt, no more, no less," but Joe Morgenstern (the Wall Street Journal) advises, "Don't see this ingenious first feature if you believe in ghosts." (Click here to see the movie's official Web site, with more back-story on the mockumentary.)

Lake Placid (20th Century Fox). Neither Kubrick nor the first-time filmmakers from Blair Witch Project have much to fear in the way of competition from this flaccid creature feature, written by David E. Kelley (The Practice, Ally McBeal). At a fictional lake in Maine--not the real Lake Placid in New York--Bridget Fonda and Bill Pullman take on a 30-foot migrant crocodile from Asia. (Movie critics seem to have a hard time telling a crocodile from an alligator.) Maslin (the New York Times) does find bright spots in the dialogue, the "divinely cheesy" special effects, and the supporting cast, which includes Oliver Platt and The General's Brendan Gleeson. But "since even the gator horror satire is old hat (remember Alligator?), there's no remaining way to make this interesting." Or, as Harry Knowles (Ain't It Cool News) neatly puts it: Placid is "the worst giant alligator movie known to man." (Click here to play the official site's wacky Croc Drop game.)

Book

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A Short History of Rudeness: Manners, Morals, and Misbehavior in Modern America, by Mark Caldwell (Picador). No one argues that Caldwell is the first historian to survey the origin and use of manners, but whether he adds much to the discussion is another question. David Bowman (the Village Voice) calls Short History"an amusing but lightweight read" and notes that "even Mick Jagger had a more rigorous take on the subject ... in 'Sympathy for the Devil.' " The NYT's Richard Eder takes a harsher line: "These broader subjects are treated in books and magazines and the slow sections of newspapers." Most reviewers notice Caldwell's positive spin on the much-maligned Martha Stewart--that she democratizes civilized living by making it not a matter of class, but simply of good habits, which anyone can learn. "It's difficult to recall a single book in which [manners] are discussed as comprehensively and intelligently as in this one ... the definitive book on the subject--at least for now" (Jonathan Yardley, the Washington Post). (Click here to buy the book.)

Music

Significant Other, by Limp Bizkit (Flip-Interscope). The notoriously potty-mouthed rap/metal quintet matures a bit on the follow-up to its 1997 debut, Three Dollar Bill, Y'All$. The band occasionally departs from its hard-core speed metal and ventures into "melodic interludes, user-friendly grooves, and actual harmonious vocals" (Lorraine Ali, Rolling Stone). The lyrics, by singer Fred Durst (who clambers out of a toilet during the band's stage act), are "still the stuff of monochromatic dude talk," but sometimes they hint at something deeper--like when "the formerly promiscuous singer confesses his shame for past recreational nookie sessions" (Ali). "The unholy matrimony of metal and rap celebrates another victory on this superb sophomore effort" (Amy Sciarretto, College Music Journal). (Click here to buy Significant Other and here to buy Three Dollar Bill, Y'All$.)

Snap Judgment

Book

Inside the Oval Office: White House Tapes From FDR to Clinton, by William Doyle (Kodansha International). Doyle's look at the audio-taping practices of 10 presidents is a "valuable history and comparative survey" (Ron Rosenbaum, the New York Times Book Review). Doyle, a "master of crackling prose" (Richard R. Roberts, the Indianapolis Star), provides insightful transcripts from key moments, such as the Cuban missile crisis and the final days of the Nixon administration. (Click here to buy the book.)