Angel Cheesecake

Angel Cheesecake

Angel Cheesecake

Highlights from the week in criticism.
Nov. 4 2000 12:00 AM

Angel Cheesecake

Movies

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Charlie's Angels (Columbia Pictures). Is this film version of the '70s TV show "completely forgettable" (Mike Clark, USA Today) or "a charming, hyper-energetic, and wittily self-aware action comedy about gorgeous girls" (David Edelstein, Slate)? Most critics think that "it will be the rare viewer, male and female, who won't enjoy the sheer visual and visceral pleasure of watching Cameron Diaz, Drew Barrymore and Lucy Liu strut, slink, kick, dance and vamp their way through this splashy femme empowerment fantasy" (Todd McCarthy, Variety). Naysayers complain that the movie is "tarted-up but tedious" and beset by "clunky double-entendres" (Rita Kempley, the Washington Post). But most agree that the movie works because "it never pretends that it's anything more than trashy, cheesy fun" (A.O. Scott, the New York Times). (Watch the trailer here, and read the rest of Edelstein's review in Slate here.)

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The Legend of Bagger Vance (DreamWorks). Downright nasty notices for this Robert Redford-helmed film about a 1930s golfer (Matt Damon) who's lost his mojo. A mysterious koan-spouting caddie named Bagger Vance (Will Smith) helps him get his groove back: "[Y]ou have to 'feel the ball,' advises Bagger, seemingly drawing inspiration from the 'be-the-ball' mantra espoused by Chevy Chase in the far superior Caddyshack" (Rita Kempley, the Washington Post). Ouch. Should be titled "Zen and the Art of Locker Room Twaddle" (Richard Schickel, Time). Double ouch. "Might charitably be described as an inspirational poster blown up into a feature film" (A.O. Scott, the New York Times). Enough! But critics have a bigger beef with the film. Aside from being "a load of burnished New Age drivel" (David Edelstein, Slate), the film actually offends some reviewers: "Mr. Smith, speaking in exaggerated Southern black dialect, seems to have strolled out of the last five minutes of Spike Lee's Bamboozled, a brief, painful anthology of the ways African-American performers have been mocked and demeaned in the movies of the past. His character, with no history and no connections, exists for the sole purpose of serving a white man's needs. … Hollywood is still, in the year 2000, disinclined to let black actors play human beings" (Scott). (Slate's David Edelstein also takes issue with Smith's "smiling pantheistic black Obi-Wan." Click here to read his review.)

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The Yards (Miramax). The critics debate: Is this family crime drama about transit system corruption too heavy-handed in its echoes of the Godfather and On the Waterfront? While Stephen Holden admires the film's "epic ambitions," "impressive weight, gravity, and visually operatic grandeur" (the New York Times), Lisa Schwarzbaum calls it a "self-consciously hardboiled … slice of NYC made with imitation cheese" (Entertainment Weekly). Reviewers hail the strong acting by Mark Wahlberg, James Caan, and Joaquin Phoenix while admitting they are sometimes constrained by a clunky script. The female characters, however, get shortchanged: "[Ellen] Burstyn and [Faye] Dunaway are so bright and interesting as actors, it's disappointing to see them relegated to second-string roles" (Desson Howe, the Washington Post). (Click here to read David Edelstein's review in Slate.)

Animal Factory (Silver Nitrate). Critics think Steve Buscemi does a great job directing this well-acted, understated, "chillingly authentic" prison movie, saying it's "different from the average clichéd jailhouse melodrama" (Denis Hamill, the New York Daily News). The film tracks the relationship between a young convict (Edward Furlong) and an older, tougher inmate (Willem Dafoe). Reviewers laud Buscemi for daring to suggest "that correctional institutions may be not only overrated but downright counterproductive" and refusing to let prison violence, like the tortures that can be seen on HBO's Oz, obscure this message (David Sterritt, the Christian Science Monitor). Elvis Mitchell agrees: "Animal Factory examines how convicts devise ways to get through the oppressive days while trying to hold on to some tiny amount of dignity. It is more harrowing than most prison fare because institutional life is treated as quotidian, a norm to which most of the men have already adjusted. … Animal Factory allows the characters to reveal themselves because they have nothing else to do with their time. The picture is startling and watchable because the apparent lassitude doesn't really mask the constant struggle for power" (the New York Times). (Click here for reviews of classic prison flicks and here for a Steve Buscemi bio.)

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Books

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Joe DiMaggio: The Hero's Life, by Richard Ben Cramer (Simon and Schuster). Cramer's myth-busting biography of Joe DiMaggio and the hero machine that made him leaves critics thoroughly disillusioned, fascinated, or frustrated. Some feel the story is unfair, others that it is sad but true, and the rest that truth is beside the point when the subject is a sports legend. In a scathing review, Jonathan Yardley criticizes Cramer for "trying to have it both ways" by simultaneously belittling DiMaggio's magic and portraying him as a victim of our need for heroes while adding nothing to our understanding of either (the Washington Post). Russell Baker approves of Cramer's prose style but disapproves, as do many other reviewers, of his weak sourcing (the New York Review of Books). Ultimately, most views of Cramer's presentation hinge on whether critics think DiMaggio's aura withstands the author's thorough muckraking. One camp thinks Cramer's "overexposed, you-are-there style only reminds you that you are not there" and that he "doesn't come close to cracking the mystery" of the "calmness at DiMaggio's center" (Wilfrid Sheed, the New York Times Book Review). But other Yankee-town writers disagree: Cramer captures "the beat of mid-century America" (Robert Bernstein, the New York Times) in an "unpleasant" story of a "hostile, misogynistic, avaricious and mean-spirited man" (John Gregory Dunne, The New Yorker) that may also leave you with the "feeling that Joe was the shell and we are still the stuffing" (Robert Lipsyte, the New York Times). (Click here to read a transcript of the PBS film on DiMaggio narrated by Cramer.)

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Shopgirl, by Steve Martin (Hyperion). Positive reviews, mostly focused on Martin's versatility as a writer/performer and the "elegant" tenderness and sophisticated dry wit of his first attempt at serious fiction (John Lanchester, the New York Times Book Review). "Shopgirl is an Audrey Hepburn of a book: slim, lovely, and ever so old-fashioned" (Kyle Smith, People). In the 130-page novella, Martin tells the story of a romance between a young clerk at the glove counter of Neiman Marcus and a 50-year-old businessman. "To fans of The Jerk and The Lonely Guy, Shopgirl may seem an incongruous creation. But the incongruity is a hopeful and sweet one" (Lydia Millet, the Washington Post). "Once you adjust to his newfound sincerity, Martin's shift from public follies to private frailties registers as courageous and convincing" (Margot Mifflin, Entertainment Weekly). Time critic Richard Corliss praises Martin to the moon, calling him "effortlessly stylish" and Shopgirl a "deft, pensive, poignant" study in isolation. Others feel Martin is off to a great start but has a bit more work to do when it comes to emphasizing the subtleties of character and comedy in his prose: "[T]here is something missing that leaves a feeling that the book is slighter than it could be. ... One senses that Martin wrote Shopgirl from passion and then stylishly disguised that passion" (Jonathan Levi, the Los Angeles Times). (Click here to visit the Steve Martin appreciation club's Web site.)

Music

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All That You Can't Leave Behind, by U2 (Interscope). Raves everywhere for the Irish band's 11th album. Shucking off the disco trappings and ironic posing of their past few albums, U2 gets back to basics: "The sigh of relief you hear is from U2 fans pleased to see the band returning to genuine, heart-driven songs … some of the most thoughtful, personal, and tender U2 songs in memory. … [T]he most adult album the group has made … simply gorgeous" (Steve Morse, the Boston Globe). "There's a quick impact to these melodies, yet each song has a resonance that doesn't fade with repeated listening. … Everything coheres in a kind of classically U2 sonic clench" (James Hunter, Rolling Stone). "Practically every song a potential hit single. Soulful, exuberant, at peace with its own clichés" (Eric Weisbard, Village Voice). One snipe comes from Spin, in an otherwise upbeat review, claiming that at times the "over-indulgent glistening of studio polish and tacky keyboard washes—not to mention Bono's shockingly puerile lyrics … may remind you more of the last Backstreet Boys album than The Unforgettable Fire" (Ron Hart). (Visit the band's Web site to listen to sound clips from the album.)