Spike's Peak

Spike's Peak

Spike's Peak

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

Spike's Peak

Movies

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Being John Malkovich (USA Films). Uninhibited raves for the feature-film debut of music video and TV commercial director Spike Jonze. The surrealist fantasy follows John Cusack and Cameron Diaz as a husband and wife who discover how to enter John Malkovich's brain though a miniature door in an office building. The critics trip over themselves with praise: "deliciously one-of-a-kind" (David Ansen, Newsweek) ... "brilliantly inventive" (Desson Howe, the Washington Post) ... "clever and outrageous" (Kenneth Turan, the Los Angeles Times) ... "either Being John Malkovich gets nominated for best picture, or the members of the Academy need portals into their brains" (Roger Ebert, the Chicago Sun-Times). (The film's official site includes an excellent selection of strange, candid shots Jonze took of the stars during filming.)

Princess Mononoke (Miramax Films). Japan's second-highest box office draw of all time (beaten only by Titanic) is this animated feature directed by Hayao Miyazaki, the country's undisputed master of anime. The complicated plot deals with conflict between man and nature in an imagined 14th-century forest. Critics are quick to note that despite being distributed by an arm of the Disney empire, the film is about as different from The Little Mermaid as you can get, and it "makes Hollywood's homiletic, follow-your-dream fables look even more solipsistic" (David Edelstein, Slate). Most impressive is the "exotically beautiful" artwork (Janet Maslin, the New York Times); the director is reported to have personally retouched some 80,000 of the film's 1.4 million cells. (Click here to watch the trailer; click here to read the rest of Edelstein's review in Slate.)

Music of the Heart (Miramax Films). Horror director Wes Craven (Scream, ANightmare on Elm Street) branches out and tackles the true story of Roberta Guaspari, an East Harlem violin teacher. The critics are evenly divided. Some declare the film "a sugary paean to the violin as a tool for improved self-esteem" (Stephen Hunter, the WashingtonPost), while others are touched: "thoroughly appealing ... Ms. Guaspari's story has been given a blunt, no-nonsense tone that works" (Janet Maslin, the New York Times). (Click here to bone up on A Nightmare on Elm Street.)

Books

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Lo's Diary, by Pia Pera (Foxrock). This retelling of Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita from the point of view of the young girl has taken quite a beating. First it got dumped by its original publisher, Farrar Straus & Giroux. Then Nabokov's estate sued for copyright infringement (they settled). Now reviewers are assaulting it in print. Michiko Kakutani neatly sums up most critics' thoughts in the New York Times: "The problem with Lo's Diary isn't that it's derivative. The problem is that Ms. Pera seems to have no understanding whatsoever of what Nabokov was up to in Lolita, and so cannot begin to re-imagine his story in any meaningful way." In this version, Lolita is a knowing seductress who tortures her pet hamster and feels no sadness at her mother's death. Critics slam her voice as "false and ungainly" (Jonathan Levi, the Los Angeles Times) and complain that her diary is tainted by ideas and language that sound awkwardly mature. Among a scattering of positive reviews, Publishers Weekly calls the book "a compelling novel in its own right." (Click here to read the first chapter.)

Thumbsucker, by Walter Kirn (Broadway Books). Mainly negative takes on book reviewer Kirn's coming-of-age novel about a troubled 14-year-old boy who tries to replace his thumb-sucking habit with various other crutches, including smoking, drinking, and Ritalin. Richard Eder writes in the New York Times Book Review that though "Kirn is a frequently sparkling tour guide" through the teen-ager's life, "[w]e get no sense ... that any of this is real; not even comically real." Defenders call it a "largely episodic collection of great moments that aren't all causally linked in that comforting way we're used to" (Yahlin Chang, Newsweek). Tom Wolfe, who attacked the book in the literary magazine Biblio on the basis of its title--without having read a word of the manuscript--draws a stinging retort from Kirn in the latest issue of Tin House, in which he writes a lovely parody of a negative review for his own book: "I consider it my duty as the author of this offensive work, to carry even further Wolfe's condemnation in hopes of neutralizing, from the start, a potentially harmful literary contagion." (Click here to read the first chapter.)

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