The critics' take on Ali, etc.

Highlights from the week in criticism.
Dec. 28 2001 4:03 PM

Ringside Seats

Movies
Ali (Columbia Pictures). The critics holler for Michael Mann's biopic, a film with "overwhelming love of its subject" that will "turn audiences into exuberant, thrilled fight crowds" (Elvis Mitchell, the New York Times). There's near unanimous praise for Will Smith's performance, which is, as the Village Voice's J. Hoberman puts it, a "contradictory mix of calculation and innocence, clowning and gravitas, sweetness and steel." The Chicago Sun-Times' Roger Ebert holds out, writing that the "long, flat" film "feels like an unfinished rough cut that might play better after editing." (Click here to visit the movie's Web site.)—B.C.

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Monster's Ball (Lions Gate Films). Phenomenal notices for this provocative tale of racism and redemption in backwoods Georgia. Billy Bob Thornton plays a racist corrections officer who begins a relationship with Halle Berry, the widow of a man he helped execute. The film "proves that Halle Berry had a spectacular performance inside her waiting to be unleashed and that Billy Bob Thornton still had a third one left in his stunning 2001 stockpile" (Mike Clark, USA Today). The film is surprising, compelling, and real. "This is one of those rare movies in which even people glimpsed only for a moment or two seem to have lives that ramify beyond the screen, as if the story were being witnessed rather than dramatized" (A.O. Scott, the New York Times). (Click here to find out about Thornton's recent country music album Private Radio, and here for the Slate"Movie Club" discussion in which Roger Ebert names Monster's Ball the top film of the year.)— B.W.

Black Hawk Down (Columbia Pictures). Critics split over this based-on-a-true-story film about a battle between U.S. soldiers and Somalis. All agree that "very little emotional capital is invested in the characters" by director Ridley Scott (J. Hoberman, the Village Voice). Some think this "absence of movie frippery" (Kenneth Turan, the Los Angeles Times) is a virtue that emphasizes the film's intense portrayal of war: "If ever there were a story in which logistics should dominate, this is it," says USA Today's Mike Clark. Turan says the movie is "so thoroughly convincing it's frequently difficult to believe it is a staged re-creation." Other critics, however, think the lack of context turns the film into "incoherent militaristic propaganda" (Elvis Mitchell, the New York Times) with a white soldier versus black Somali story that is "definitely, if perhaps inadvertently, racist" (John Anderson, Newsday). (Click here to read "Blackhawk Down," the Philadelphia Inquirer series by Mark Bowden which was the basis for the movie.)—B.M.L.

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The Shipping News (Miramax). Two main issues ruin this flick by director Lasse Hallström (The Cider House Rules): 1) his interpretation of E. Annie Proulx's Pulitzer-winning novel; and 2) his star, Kevin Spacey. As Quoyle, a depressed single father who returns to his family's ancestral home in Newfoundland, Spacey "plays against" his "crackling impudence" and "succeeds too well" as a "hopeless schlemiel" (Michael Wilmington, the Chicago Tribune). And despite Proulx's "eccentric" poetics, Hallström's film feels so "standard," it's "hard to believe the book won so much as a prize in a Cracker Jack box" (Kenneth Turan, the Los Angeles Times). The "limp and sodden" downer's only ray of light (Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly)? A "shrewd, gloriously trampy" performance by Cate Blanchett as Quoyle's wife (Turan). (Click here for the official Web site.)— A.B.

Gosford Park(USA Films). Terrific reviews for this Robert Altman-directed "virtuoso ensemble piece" (Stephen Holden, the New York Times) with a huge cast of mostly British luminaries, including Helen Mirren, Maggie Smith, Kristin Scott Thomas, and Michael Gambon. A comedic murder mystery set at a posh British country house, this film is "concerned with the complex, symbiotic relationship between those upstairs and those below" (Kenneth Turan, the Los Angeles Times). The film is full of "ceaseless delights" (Mike Clark, USA Today): The top-drawer cast, the incisive script, and Altman's keen direction all get raves. "The filmmaker, who turns 77 in February, should simply torch his AARP card" (Clark). (Click here for a lengthy, gushing appraisal of Altman's career.)—B.W.

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Kate & Leopold (Miramax). Conflicted takes on this "preposterous time-travel romance" (Roger Ebert, the Chicago Sun-Times), which pits "the nose-scrunching, arm-flapping mass of self-adoring yuppie neuroses known as Meg Ryan" (Dennis Lim, the Village Voice) against Hugh Jackman as a chivalrous English lord. The plot: A female exec's inventor ex discovers a portal to 1876 by jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge, only to return for her with a proverbial white knight. Some color Jackman the epitome of "romance novel dreaminess," calling the film's "slender charm" a byproduct of this fantasy (Stephen Holden, the New York Times). Others are troubled that what this "successful career woman really wants is courtly love with a guy from a time when women couldn't vote and were virtually caged by kids and/or corsets" (John Anderson, Newsday). (Click here to visit the official Web site.)— A.B.

Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius (Paramount Pictures). This computer-animated Nickelodeon production gets OK reviews. Jimmy Neutron is a gizmo-inventing kid who leads his classmates in an effort to retrieve their alien-abducted parents. The film is "full of whirring gizmos, ricocheting projectiles and giddy hyperactivity" (A.O. Scott, the New York Times), and its "colorful visual style has the exaggerated look of '50s cartoons and puppetry given a hard CGI edge" (Todd McCarthy, Variety). Adults beware: Critics warn "it doesn't have the little in-jokes that make Shrek and Monsters, Inc. fun for grown-ups" (Roger Ebert, the Chicago Sun-Times). (Click here for Jimmy Neutron's whiz-bang official site.)—B.W.

Joe Somebody (20th Century Fox). Unenthusiastic reviews for this Tim Allen comedy. Allen plays Joe, a suburban drone who is bullied by a colleague. With the help of a scene-stealing mall martial arts instructor (Jim Belushi), he trains to bulk up, but in the process realizes the old Joe wasn't so bad after all. "Dual redemption is the point of a comedy that's likable but not distinctive enough to survive its touchy-feely limitations" (Mike Clark, USA Today). Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times thinks "Joe Somebody plays like an after-school special, with grownups cast in the kids' roles." To the more positive critics, "It's not great; it's also not idiotic" (Stephen Hunter, the Washington Post). (Click here for a tribute site dedicated to Jim Belushi's late, great brother John.)—B.W.

Book cover

Book

The War Against Cliché: Essays and Reviews 1971-2000, by Martin Amis (Talk/Miramax). "When I praise," writes this Brit lit-wit, "I am usually quoting the opposed qualities of freshness, energy and reverberation of voice." Most critics concur. Amis' journalism is "narrowly focused and uncannily vivid"; and even though his subject matter includes chess and politics, this is really "a portrait of the artist as a reader of great books" (Jenny Turner, the New York Times). In fact, here, critic Amis is "buzzing" so completely "he doesn't just review books, he re-writes them" (Geoff Dyer, the Guardian). Of course, some note, the collection's length "makes the temptation to skip irresistible" (Hilton Kramer, the Wall Street Journal). But how can "Summary Judgment" not respect a rogue who can "summarize a book or writer's achievement with epigrammatical exactitude?" (Michael Dirda, the Washington Post). (Listen to a BBC Radio 4 piece featuring Amis' thoughts on the Great American Novel.)— A.B.

Adam Baer is a culture critic for the New York Sun and contributor to the New York Times Book Review, Travel + Leisure, and Slate, among other publications.

Bryan Curtis is a staff writer for Grantland. Follow him on Twitter.

Ben Mathis-Lilley edits the Slatest. Follow @Slatest on Twitter.

Ben Wasserstein is an associate editor at New York magazine.