Shrek's Not Dreck

Shrek's Not Dreck

Shrek's Not Dreck

Highlights from the week in criticism.
May 19 2001 12:00 AM

Shrek's Not Dreck

Movies

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Shrek (DreamWorks SKG). Mostly fabulous reviews for this computer-animated version of William Steig's story about a gloomy green ogre. Shrek's swamp is overrun by refugee fairytale creatures from Disneyland, and he and his best-thing-in-the-movie sidekick (voice of Eddie Murphy) go off to rescue a kick-ass princess (voice of Cameron Diaz) on behalf of an evil king (supposedly modeled on Michael Eisner). The movie works both as simple story and clever spoof—"jolly and wicked, filled with sly in-jokes and yet somehow possessing a heart" (Roger Ebert, the Chicago Sun-Times). Funny bits: Bluebirds explode when the princess hits a high note, so she fries their eggs; Gingerbread Man spits and screams, "Eat Me!" when threatened. Those disappointed say it's too cynically reliant on pop culture references, studio spitefulness, and that it looks like a near-human video game. (Click here to read about the animation.)—Y.S.

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Angel Eyes (Warner Bros.). Mixed reviews for this romantic thriller with a tinge of ghost story. In a stunning departure from type, J. Lo plays a tough cop with family issues and a soft heart. Critics divide on whether the action—she was at the scene of an accident whose victim (James Caviezel) later stalks and saves her—is effective. Some say the eerieness drags, the emotion gets mushy, and the characters seem too simple. It "promises insight but is strictly soft focus. ... [It] can be downright silly, like when a moony Lopez pieces together the dandelion puffball that Caviezel gave her days ago" (Susan Wloszczyna, USA Today). Others think it's haunting: "[A] complex, evasive romance involving two people who both want to be inaccessible. It's intriguing to see their dance of attraction and retreat" (Roger Ebert, the Chicago Sun-Times). (Click here for the official site.)—Y.S.

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Music

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Come Dream With Me, by Jane Monheit (N-Coded). Another album of standards by the young, retro, easy on the eyes and ears chanteuse. ("She sings and acts a great deal like a sexy, young, white Ella Fitzgerald," said a December New York Times Magazine profile.) Fans are gushing once more about her emotional range and ability to connect with the audience. Her "softened soprano sounds so natural, so personable that it's as if she were spilling her secrets. ... Monheit transforms Harold Arlen's 'Over the Rainbow' from a diva's showstopper to a lonely dreamer's wistful confession. She adds a new precision of melody and phrasing to Joni Mitchell's 'A Case of You' without losing its conversational quality" (Geoffrey Himes, the Washington Post). (Click here for samples.)—Y.S.

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Books
John Henry Days, by Colson Whitehead (Doubleday). Critical consensus: great, ambitious writer; sprawling, "bloated" book (Dale Peck, the Village Voice). Whitehead works toward an Ellison-, Joyce-, and DeLillo-like epic, but ends up making a "grand mess" (Malcolm Jones, Newsweek). The novel strains to juxtapose the myth of John Henry, the 19th-century railway worker who died after racing a steam drill, and the story of J. Sutter, a black free-lance journalist trying to break a record for attending press junkets, who was assigned a story on the John Henry commemorative postage stamp. Critics say Whitehead's prose is evocative, he's on target in his satiric depiction of the media racket, and he does a good job showing how myths transform over time. The main flaws: 1) Whitehead strips the novel of suspense by foretelling his ending early on; 2) t he novel "refuses to yield a unifying resonance" or clear message; and 3) the jaded J. Sutter can't compete with the mighty John Henry as a compelling protagonist (John Updike, The New Yorker). (Click here for the first chapter and a reading by the author.)—Y.S.

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Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America, by Barbara Ehrenreich (Metropolitan Books). An important book on the working poor by a lefty journalist whose undercover reporting and personal analysis draw both criticism and praise. Ehrenreich describes the difficulty and degradation of her day-to-day life as a waitress and maid in Florida, a housecleaner and nursing-home aide in Maine, and a Wal-Mart salesclerk in Minnesota. Her conclusions: Hardworking low-wage earners can't make ends meet, and the boom hasn't benefited those at the bottom. Critics compare the book to Michael Harrington's Other America, praise Ehrenreich's compassion and indignation, and say her insider approach lifts the book above punditry. "Self-reflection—along with her trademark humor—saves Ehrenreich's descent into low-wage work from becoming just another exercise in slumming" (Eileen Borris, the Boston Globe). Critics also say she recognizes that her pro-union and anti-welfare reform views that don't jibe with those of the working women she meets. Criticisms: 1) She has no right to speak for the working class—"Ehrenreich's forays into the world of the nonprofessional class rarely lasted long enough for her to earn more than one month's rent at the trailer parks she 'lived' in ... as far as reporting goes, it's the journalistic equivalent of learning what it's like to be blind by closing your eyes" (John Cook, Brill's Content). 2) Reviewers said Ehrenreich's "Maid To Order," a portion of the book published in Harper's, was wrong to criticize middle-class feminists for hiring female servants—"Why should we refuse to hire people who need the money? For more than 40 years, feminists have been demanding that domestic labor be viewed as part of the economy" (Judith Shulevitz, Slate). 3) Where are the numbers? "[M]any of the most jarring statistics on labor practices and housing horrors are hidden in the footnotes throughout the book" (Vivien Labaton, Ms.), 4) What should we do now? "When it comes to suggestions for how to solve the problem ... Ehrenreich is mum" (Polly Shulman, Newsday). (Click here for a dialogue about the book.)—Y.S.

 

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Positively Fourth Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Fariña, and Richard Fariña, by David Hadju (Farrar Straus & Giroux). A well-received book about the ambition of young folk singers who converged in Greenwich Village in the early 1960s. "A strong and vivid portrait of some remarkable characters—and one that manages against the odds to get to the people behind the egos" (Kirkus). A moody, mooching Dylan, who dumps Baez and protest songs in his striving, is the main focus, though Hadju seems to think Dylan came out better for it. "Dylan was the illegitimate spiritual child of Woody Guthrie, in whom the lower-middle-class, Jewish college dropout from the Midwest found a role model who was 'Hank Williams, James Dean and Buddy Holly—a literate folksinger with a rock and roll attitude.' " (Allen Barra, Salon). "As you read the story you begin to get a sense of Dylan's peculiarity. ... He is in that line of American originals ... who imagine a character for themselves, a variety of uniqueness, and then become it" (David Remnick, The New Yorker). (Click here for a Dylan portal.)—Y.S.

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