Weak Hearts, Potent Pu-239

Weak Hearts, Potent Pu-239

Weak Hearts, Potent Pu-239

Highlights from the week in criticism.
Oct. 13 1999 3:30 AM

Weak Hearts, Potent Pu-239

Movies

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Random Hearts (Columbia Pictures). Sydney Pollack directs Harrison Ford and Kristin Scott Thomas as two middle-aged strangers who discover, after a plane crash kills their respective spouses, that their loved ones were having an affair together. In their grief, they start an affair. Despite the strength of the star power, the reviews are uniformly weak: "[T]he movie ... sputters and sprawls, breathtakingly unaware of how ponderous it is" (Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly). The problem? The relationship that blossoms between Ford and Scott Thomas is unrealistic and boring, "the sexual equivalent of Easy Listening" (Janet Maslin, the New York Times). (Click here to find out more about Ford and here to find out more about Scott Thomas.)

BoysDon't Cry (Fox Searchlight Pictures). Outstanding reviews for this independent film based on the life of Teena Brandon, a Midwestern girl who passed as a boy and was raped and murdered when her secret got out. Critics can't say enough good things about the film: It is "audacious, accomplished" (Emanuel Levy, Variety), "a delicately conceived, fearless film" that is like "a long tragic poem" (David Denby, The New Yorker), "one of the year's best" (Roger Ebert, the Chicago Sun-Times). The New York Times' Maslin calls it a "stunning debut feature" for director Kimberly Peirce, and Entertainment Weekly's Owen Gleiberman calls Hilary Swank, a Beverly Hills 90210 veteran who plays Brandon, "extraordinary." (Watch the trailer on the official site, and read an article in Slate on how well the film reflects the facts of the actual story.)

Superstar (Paramount Pictures). "If Superstar were meatloaf--and that would be an improvement--the recipe would be 4 pounds bread crumbs to 3 ounces sirloin. Make that chuck," opines John Anderson in the Los Angeles Times. Most reviewers agree with this assessment, saying the Saturday Night Live sketch featuring Molly Shannon as nerdy, horny, tortured Catholic schoolgirl Mary Katherine Gallagher--with a signature pratfall that exposes her large white underpants--does not translate well to the big screen. The biggest problem: The character is "so sad and helpless, so hard to like, so impossible to empathize with, that watching it feels like an act of unkindness" (Ebert, the Chicago Sun-Times). A few concede that the film is "amusing if uneven" (Dennis Harvey, Daily Variety), and Stephen Hunter gives the film a decidedly upbeat review: "The character works because Shannon so precisely gets the dank weirdness of the truly alone. And because she shows her underpants a lot." Reading further, one questions his motives when he describes her thus: "her legs askew, her too-tiny schoolgirl kilt aflutter and the little white delta of her panties flapping before the world, we sense someone profoundly disturbed yet poignant at the same time." (the Washington Post). (Click here to find out more about Shannon and here to listen to an audio clip of her in character.)

Book

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Pu-239 and Other Russian Fantasies: A Novella and Stories, by Ken Kalfus (Milkweed Editions). Strong reviews for this collection of stories set in Soviet Russia: These "crafty, nerve-rattling tales are among the most unusual and interesting now being written" (Kirkus Reviews). Characters range from a nuclear reactor employee who tries to steal and sell the plutonium of the title in order to support his family after he gets radiation poisoning, to a girl who is convinced there is a link between her onset of puberty and the death of Stalin. The only sour note comes from Jim Shepard in the New York Times Book Review, who writes in an otherwise laudatory review that "a surplus of sobriety may account for what weaknesses the collection has." (Click here to read the first chapter.)

Music

TheFragile, by Nine Inch Nails (Nothing/Interscope). Excellent reviews and a debut at No. 1 on Billboard's pop chart (it then dove down to No. 16) for Trent Reznor's first offering in five years. The double album is "a musical treasure trove. ... Hard rock simply doesn't get any smarter, harder, or more ambitious than this" (Jim DeRogatis, the Chicago Sun-Times). What sets Reznor (who records under the name Nine Inch Nails) apart from the techno/goth-rock pack? His knack for pop hooks and appealing beats in the midst of all the aural chaos: "[W]hen you listen up close you get engrossed in the buried sonic twists and turns; when you turn it up loud Reznor bangs your head with great rockers" (Rob Sheffield, Rolling Stone). (Watch the video from the album on the official Nine Inch Nails Web site.)

GarthBrooks in ... the Life of Chris Gaines, by Garth Brooks (EMD/Capitol). Garth Brooks shocks the world by putting out a pop album under the fictional persona of Chris Gaines, giving himself a radical makeover complete with soul patch, eye makeup and, most startling of all, no cowboy hat: "[H]e looks a bit like Trent Reznor crossed with a guy who eats a lot of cheese steaks" (Christopher John Farley, Time). The music, though, is anything but shocking. It's "drab, anonymous pop" (Robert Hilburn, the Los Angeles Times) with a few Babyface-style R&B numbers thrown in for good measure. The consensus: "It's neither a great pop album nor a great Brooks album" (Brian Mansfield, USA Today). ( Visit Garth Centralto find out more about Brooks and his alter ego.)

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