Highlights from the week in criticism.
Jan. 13 2001 12:00 AM



AntiTrust (MGM). Critics say this film's topicality doesn't compensate for its unbelievability. The plot: "a high-tech The Firm" (Andy Seiler, USA Today). Reviewers complain that the film's paranoia and predictability are too much to bear, as is its none-too-subtle depiction of a big computer company being sued by the Justice Department, which is run by a man whose resemblance to Bill Gates "isn't just close, it's embarrassing" (Desson Howe, the Washington Post). Amid a lot of sarcastic hmming and duuhing and yeah-righting, critics admit the film is somewhat entertaining and has its clever touches. A couple of ironies pointed out in the reviews: 1) A real-life lefty (Tim Robbins) playing the villainous CEO steals the show from his bland, beautiful young co-stars (Ryan Phillippe, Rachael Leigh Cook) playing computer geeks. 2) "[I]t's always amusing when big studios take aim at large, predatory corporations" (A.O. Scott, the New York Times). (Click here to read Michael Kinsley's take on the film's muddy information-liberation message in Slate, and here for the film's endorsement of open-source code—via an interview with the executive director of Linux International—on its official site.)


Thirteen Days (New Line). Critics find this TV-movielike depiction of the Cuban Missile Crisis gripping, even if all the action is in the White House back rooms and "its heroes are policy wonks" (Mike Clark, USA Today). Though they don't quibble about accuracy, reviewers do fixate on how the drama works as a history lesson. They have two history-related questions. 1) Is the film more or less dramatic than the actual events portrayed? Most claim the film is "understated" (Todd McCarthy, Variety; and Desson Howe, the Washington Post), a few feel it's "inflated" (Elvis Mitchell, the New York Times), and still others that it does not register the "public terror" (Joe Morgenstern, the Wall Street Journal) that seized the nation during the crisis. 2) How does our very own election crisis compare to the nuclear showdown of 1962? The critics—whose punning was overshadowed by that of Dan Rather for over a month—take the opportunity to take a stab at punditry. We live in a time of "small chads" (Lou Lumenick, the New York Post), an "age of nonleadership" (Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly). The Bushies have no chance against the Kennedys; good acting by Steven Culp and Bruce Greenwood as Robert and John, respectively, has everyone longing for a time "when being president of the United States actually meant something" (J. Hoberman, the Village Voice). "Its heroic point of view is something of a relief" (Kenneth Turan, the Los Angeles Times). (Read Slate' s take on how the film squares with history here. Click here to read excerpts from the book the film is based upon.)


Save the Last Dance (MTV Films). A palatable teen movie about interracial puppy love. The plot: Ex-ballerina Julia Stiles is initiated into a hip-hop-infused high school on Chicago's South Side by a gifted poster boy (Sean Patrick Thomas) who, though planning on med school, is a dream on the dance floor. Critical comparisons to Dirty Dancing, Flashdance, Romeo and Juliet, and West Side Story abound. Problems pointed out by the critics: Stiles can't dance (there's speculation about stunt legs), the soundtrack sucks and has few traces of genuine hip-hop, the dialogue is strictly "afterschool special" (Jessica Winter, Village Voice), and the film is "afraid to pump up the volume" on racial issues (Lisa Schwarzbaum, Entertainment Weekly). (Click here for trailers and here for the film's official site, complete with a "Find Your Own Voice Poll.")


Music The W, Wu-Tang Clan(Loud). All the critics like what they're hearing from this Staten Island-based rap group that has spawned an entire industry of Wu gear and launched the solo careers of several members. But the reviews characterize this album in contradictory ways. A mere 45 minutes long, the album is simultaneously "less cryptic" and "head-spinningly artful" (Gabriel Man, Spin) and a "retreat" that's "hardly a throwback" (Neil Drumming, CMJ). Consensus is that The W, though not innovative, is far better than the Clan's last album—Man's "Rejoice for the Wu has returned!" is the critical rallying cry—and that longtime Clan member RZA has done a stellar production job. The album is much praised for being "just what hardcore hip hop heads need in this time of bling-bling and shiny things: straight up and no chaser" (Rashaun Hall, Billboard). Snoop's guest appearance on the catchy "Conditioner," however, shames fans and prompts criticism that the band is trying too hard to please. (Click here for Vibe's interview with three of the nine band members, here for a fan site, and here for the band's official site.)


Books American Places: Encounters With History, edited by William E. Leuchtenburg (Oxford University Press). Appreciative reviews for these essays by prominent historians about places that have inspired them. Critics claim the book reads like an expertly guided tour that combines "authority and affection" (Michael Kinney, the Boston Globe). "America" is interpreted broadly so that there is room in the collection for a description of occupied Mannheim, Germany, after World War II and "Cyberpsace USA." Other essays tell of classic landmarks like Gettysburg, Pa., cultural shrines like Graceland, natural wonders like the Grand Canyon, hometowns like Queens, and more obscure places like the East Aurora, N.Y. Critics praise the book for its accessibility and personal tone; they point out that though "a number of writers prove unable to shed the straightjacket of scholarly distance," most of the book "vividly demonstrates what good things can happen when the historian leaves the cloister and ventures into the world" (Jonathan Yardley, the Washington Post). They also highlight a few essays for special discussion, like David Hackett Fischer's "Boston Common," William H. Chafe's "Greensboro, North Carolina," and David Kennedy's "San Juan Island." Most notable, critics say, is the way essayists philosophize about American prejudices, traditions, identity, and memory in their discussions of specific locales while also "illuminating forgotten corners of history" (Merle Rubin, the Los Angeles Times). (Click here to read essays from the book.)


Lying Awake, by Mark Salzman (Knopf). Stellar reviews ("approaching a perfect little novel" according to a New Yorker profile of the author) for this story of spiritual crisis. Critics are taken by Salzman's refreshingly earnest—"no sly winks to the reader, and absolutely not a single drop of irony" (Jennifer Howard, the Washington Post)—attempt to broach big questions about faith, art, doubt, and grace in a novel about a nun whose inspirational visions are attributed to epilepsy. Most praise Salzman's "brevity and clarity" and prize his portrayal of daily life in the Carmelite convent (Thomas Curwein, the Los Angeles Times). Richard Eder refuses to submit entirely to the worshipful accolades; he calls the book a "mixed success" that "decrees light without capturing it" (the New York Times). (Click here to read an excerpt.)

Yael Schacher is a Slateintern.



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