Second Helpings of Pi

Second Helpings of Pi

Second Helpings of Pi

Highlights from the week in criticism.
Oct. 28 2000 12:00 AM

Second Helpings of Pi

Movies

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Lucky Numbers (Paramount Pictures). Critics question the ability of romantic comedy queen Nora Ephron (You've Got Mail) to direct a Coen brothers-style satirical dark comedy about dimwitted small-town crooks. John Travolta plays a weatherman with big dreams of being a game show host. About to go broke, he and the station's lotto girl, Lisa Kudrow, devise a scam to rig the state lottery but get in way over their heads. The ever-appreciative Kevin Thomas (Los Angeles Times) praises Ephron's "fast-paced and unpretentious film," but most reviewers feel Ephron "struggles for the right tone" (Andy Seiler, USAToday) and "condescends to her characters" (Lisa Schwarzbaum, Entertainment Weekly). "This is a dark comedy in the muckraking mode that starts out murderously well but then begins to unravel. ... By the climax, amusing cynicism has edged closer to conventional big studio keep-the-customer-smiling cynicism" (Michael Wilmington, the Chicago Tribune). Washington Post critics disagree about which star shines brighter: Michael O'Sullivan claims "Kudrow's the film's true manic engine," while Travolta, "looking bloated and inert, appears to have settled into the role of the fall guy rather than even attempt to be an active participant." But Stephen Hunter praises Travolta's "bravura performance" and thinks that Kudrow is "a little out of range … 'acting' in a way that clashes with Travolta's deeper sense of being." (Click here to read a biography of Ephron, here for the film's official Web site, with links to trailers, and here to read Ephron's "Breakfast Table" in Slate.)

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Blair Witch 2: Book of Shadows (Artisan Entertainment). Critics agree: This is nowhere near as good as the first. The disappointment ranges from intense—"Lordy, what a stinker" (David Edelstein, Slate)—to mild: "The Blair Witch Project was perhaps one of a kind. Its success made a sequel inevitable, but this is not the sequel, I suspect, anyone much wanted" (Roger Ebert, the Chicago Sun-Times). Though directed by big-time documentarian Joe Berlinger (Brother's Keeper), the movie's attempt at meta-analysis of an imagined media frenzy in the Maryland town where the first film was set fails both at being an interesting movie and at being scary. It "seems more like a montage of pasted-together images than a coherent horror story" (Stephen Holden, the New York Times). Some enjoy it despite the flaws, saying "on a works/doesn't-work rating system, this one just barely works, primarily because the kids in the cast are so good. … Yet somehow it lacks the resonance of the first—it just scares, it doesn't vibrate into the darker recesses of the soul" (Stephen Hunter, the Washington Post). (Click here to read the rest of David Edelstein's review in Slate.)

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Requiem for a Dream (Artisan Entertainment). Stellar reviews for the second film by Darren Aronofsky (Pi), an "unblinking study of addiction" starring Ellen Burstyn, Jared Leto, Jennifer Connelly, and Marlon Wayans (Anthony Lane, The New Yorker). Critics are horrified and engrossed: "so viscerally repulsive and soul-wrenching to watch—that you feel as if the needle were being jammed into your own gangrenous arm, as if it were your life being thrown away. … Requiem locks in on its self-destructive subjects so precisely, it's almost unbearable to watch" (Jack Mathews, the New York Daily News). In an astonished rave, Entertainment Weekly's Owen Gleiberman calls the film "one of the most disturbing movies ever made (it could upset some viewers even more than A Clockwork Orange or Natural Born Killers did), yet it's impossible to take your eyes off it. … [A] full-throttle mind-bender … hypnotically harrowing and intense, a visual and spiritual plunge into the seduction and terror of drug addiction." One bad review from Mike Clark in USA Today complains that the film's artsy tricks (split-screen, jarring handheld shots, etc.) are annoyingly stylized and self-conscious. But most critics say Burstyn and Connolly give tremendous performances, and warn that some viewers "may find it infuriating precisely because it's so intimidating, and it may leave you shaken. Be warned: it's a downer, and a knockout" (Elvis Mitchell, the New York Times). (Click here to read a Slate"Diary" from Sean Gulette, star of Aronofsky's first film.)

Books

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Cherry: A Memoir, by Mary Karr (Viking). Karr's follow-up to her best-selling memoir The Liars' Club (1995) doesn't live up to critics' high expectations. While her first book described Karr's idiosyncratic early childhood, Cherry is a more typical depiction of adolescence on the road, with its inevitable loss of innocence and increasing solipsism. In a particularly harsh review, Gail Caldwell calls it a "desultory," "forced," and "familiar " story of the "prodigal daughter, anchored by poetry, but fueled by the ever-fiercer demands of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll" (the Boston Globe). But most critics think that Karr's ability to "make the personal universal" (Lisa Schwarzbaum, Entertainment Weekly), to maintain a balance between narrative detachment and involvement, and to combine lyricism and vernacular, distinguishes Cherry from clichéd coming-of-age fare. Karr is forgiving in her portrayal of her improvident parents and exhibits "generosity … toward the awkward adolescent she once was" (Sara Mosle, the New York Times Book Review). And in analyzing Karr's memoir mastery, reviewers indulge in genre analysis themselves. In a New York Review of Books essay, Joyce Carol Oates refutes the claim that all confessional writing is "a failure of the imagination: As if 'imagining' the pattern of one's own life were an easy exercise; as if painting a self-portrait isn't the most challenging of an artist's tasks." (Click here to listen to Karr reading from Cherry and here to listen to her reading her poem "Beauty and the Shoe Sluts.")

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The Family Orchard, by Nomi Eve (Knopf). Critics are impressed by Eve's storytelling gifts but put off by the novice author's bending of narrative conventions. Three different voices recount the story of six generations of Eve's family from their immigration to Palestine in the 1800s to their present-day lives in Israel. While Eve's polyphonic approach sometimes helps her "focus on creating character" and "allows detail and imagery to resonate among the generations" (Nell Freudenberger, the Village Voice), most critics think it, along with the book's experimental typography, "impede[s] the novel's flow" (Susan Jacoby, the Washington Post). Still, reviewers are impressed by the novel's bounty, especially the way Eve skillfully structures her work around the powerful, multilayered metaphor of her family's "pardes," the Hebrew word for orchard, to allude to "our partnership in creation" (Paul Gray, Time). Michiko Kakutani adds that "[a]lthough the closing sections of the novel bog down in postmodernist allusions and therapeutic-age asides," some of the book's chapters "are told in the bold colors of an Isaac Bashevis Singer fable" or "use a surrealism reminiscent at once of Gogol and of Gabriel García Márquez" (the New York Times). (Click here to read a Q and A with Eve and here to read an excerpt from the book.) 

Music

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Crossing Muddy Waters, by John Hiatt (Vanguard). The prolific singer and songwriter known mostly for the artists who have covered his work (including Bonnie Raitt, Iggy Pop, and Bob Dylan) produces his first acoustic record. Critics say it's "his most thoroughly engrossing batch of songs since his prime late-'80s work" (Randy Lewis, the Los Angeles Times). Recorded in just a few days at a studio down the street from Hiatt's house, the album has an easygoing feeling and an old-timey "back-porch sound" (Angela Gunn, the Seattle Weekly). What critics like most is the way his songs "seem so authentic that Hiatt sounds like he's covering classics rather than debuting originals" (D.M. Avery, CMJ). Also interesting is the fact that Hiatt is releasing the album on the Web through eMusic for $8.99, in addition to selling it in stores. (Vanguard's page on Hiatt includes news and tour dates.)  

Yael Schacher is a Slateintern.

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