Wiesel Words

Wiesel Words

Wiesel Words

Highlights from the week in criticism.
Jan. 12 2000 3:30 AM

Wiesel Words

Movies

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Magnolia (New Line Cinema). Rave after rave for writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson's (Boogie Nights) star-filled film about a series of interconnected characters in the San Fernando Valley: "A wildly funny, truly wise and subversively sincere film about pain, forgiveness and the possibility of healing" (Joe Morgenstern, the Wall Street Journal). The cast includes Julianne Moore, William H. Macy, Jason Robards, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Tom Cruise (who receives over-the-top praise for his performance as a men's self-help guru). Critics do express some reservations, mainly about the movie's length and overwrought emotion--as Roger Ebert writes, the film is "operatic in its ambition," and viewers should "[l]eave logic at the door. Do not expect subdued taste and restraint" (the Chicago Sun-Times). A few feel that Anderson doesn't pull it off: Magnolia, a "big, showy flower of a movie, unfurls brilliantly, each plot petal a thing of exquisite design. Then it ripens. Then it disintegrates, leaving a mess of color and a faint whiff of rot" (Lisa Schwarzbaum, Entertainment Weekly). (The official site includes several trailers and stills from the film.)

Snow Falling on Cedars (Universal Pictures). "Inert," "hollow," "anesthetized," and other deadly adjectives fill the reviews for the screen adaptation of David Guterson's best-selling novel about the lingering effects of Japanese internment camps in the Pacific Northwest. Director Scott Hicks (Shine) takes a few knocks: "If ever there was an example of a director's getting in the way of a story, this is it" (David Ansen, Newsweek). Strangely enough, Ethan Hawke--the film's biggest star--gets almost no mention. The cinematography is alternately praised as stunning and condemned as boring, but the response to the story line is unanimous: It's a "liberal soap opera" (Richard Schickel, Time) that consists of a "self-congratulatory anti-prejudice message, fleshed out with painstaking topographic detail" (Dennis Lim, the Village Voice). A few critics stand up for the film, calling it a "thoughtful, evocative thriller" (Kenneth Turan, the Los Angeles Times). (Find out more about Hawke here.)

Books

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And the Sea Is Never Full, by Elie Wiesel (Knopf). After heaping praise on Wiesel's work on behalf of countless Holocaust causes, reviewers reluctantly detail their problems with this second volume of his memoirs. On the positive side: It's a compelling document "of a life marked by high seriousness, good conscience and an utter refusal to submit to evil and oppression" (Jonathan Groner, the Washington Post Book World), and upon reading it you "become persuaded that something about his combination of seeming innocence and moral honesty has the power to move if not mountains then those who have the most power" (Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, the New York Times). But complaints against the book are uniform: 1) This volume "feels anti-climactic" (Duane Davis, Denver Rocky Mountain News) when compared with his first because it lacks the kind of compelling events that shaped his early life. 2) The book "is patchwork, a grab bag of speeches he gave, the great and the near-great he met, causes he could not refuse to get involved in, conferences he helped to organize, ideological battles he fought" instead of a linear narrative (Lehmann-Haupt). (Click here to read an interview with Wiesel.)

James Joyce, by Edna O'Brien (Viking Penguin). This latest installment of the "Penguin Lives" series is well received, even though it trails Richard Ellman's definitive 900-page Joyce tome, which was deemed "probably this century's best biography of a writer" (David Kippen, the San Francisco Chronicle). Undaunted, novelist O'Brien attempts something entirely different: She gives 179 pages of "hardheaded hagiography in which she spends a lot of time knocking Joyce around" (Robert Sullivan, the New York Times Book Review). It's notable not for its wide net, but for its precision, economy, and insight: "a first-rate appraisal of a master ... a model of pristine brevity" (Robert Taylor, the Boston Globe). One complaint: The book contains an "impressive number of inaccuracies of a factual nature," such as misidentifying the poet laureate of Victorian Ireland and misquoting critic Walter Pater (Thomas Flannagan, the Los Angeles Times). (This Joyce site has essays, links, and message boards on the author.)

Fasting, Feasting, by Anita Desai (Houghton Mifflin). Nominated for the Booker Prize in England, Desai's novel of a small-town family in India is deemed "splendid" (Gabriella Stern, the Wall Street Journal). The two parts of the title refer to the internal structure of the book, the first half following the life of the family's plain and somewhat dim older daughter, who after failing to marry is consigned to the life of a glorified house servant. The second half follows the family's favorite son as he travels to America for his education. A "wry, touching and understated novel" (Francine Prose, the New York Times Book Review). (Click here to find out more about Desai.)

Sick Puppy, by Carl Hiaasen (Knopf). Excellent reviews for the Miami Herald columnist's latest thriller excoriating the excesses of his home state. "He shows himself to be a comic writer at the peak of his powers" and "once again produces a devilishly funny caper revolving around ... environmental exploitation" (Publisher's Weekly). The tale follows a slightly psychotic environmentalist who decides to enact personal revenge on a local real-estate bigwig who happens to be an incurable litterbug. The only criticism: Hiaasen "walks a fine line between satire and outrage, as well as another between the conventions of the thriller and the conventions of slapstick, and … toward the end matters get so frenetic that credulity is strained well past the snapping point" (Jonathan Yardley, the Washington Post). (Read an interview with Hiaasen.)

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