The critics' take on Hart's War, etc.

Highlights from the week in criticism.
Feb. 15 2002 2:17 PM

Fifty Years of Liberal Message Movies

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Movies Hart's War (MGM). Mostly unfavorable reviews for this courtroom drama set in a WW II POW camp. A few critics praise the cast and the "astonishingly beautiful" direction and cinematography (Elvis Mitchell, the New York Times), but most say these strengths are outweighed by the film's confused plot and trite message about racial tolerance. The "unwieldy crunch of social melodrama and P.O.W. action movie combine to result in the oddest thing—a movie that wants to be everything and adds up to nothing," says Mitchell. The racial subplot "turns regrettably earnest and preachy almost immediately" (Kenneth Turan, the Los Angeles Times). Entertainment Weekly's Owen Gleiberman wonders why such movies are still getting made: "Isn't there something wrong with the fact that in 2002, half a century after Sidney Poiter made his film debut, we're still getting paint-by-numbers liberal message movies that invite us to applaud ourselves for recognizing that black people and white people are the same under the skin?" (Click here for the film's official site.)— B.M.L.

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John Q. (New Line). Critics say that no amount of insurance could cover the stinker that is John Q. Denzel Washington stars as a working-class father whose medical insurance won't cover the heart transplant his son needs to live, so he goes into the hospital and takes hostages. Some reviews criticize the gun-toting solution the movie offers to the very real problem of health care for the poor: Stephen Hunter of the Washington Post says it has a "grotesquely inverted moral compass." Overall, "John Q is the kind of movie Mad magazine prays for. It is so earnest, so overwrought and so wildly implausible that it begs to be parodied" (Roger Ebert, the Chicago Sun-Times). (Click here for an interview with John Q. co-star Anne Heche in which she discusses her fantasy life as an alien named Celestia and her aptly titled autobiography, Call Me Crazy.)— B.W.

Iris (Miramax). Glowing reviews for this "glazed-porcelain teapot of a drama" (Lisa Schwarzbaum, Entertainment Weekly), directed by Sir Richard Eyre. It stars Oscar nominees Kate Winslet and Judi Dench as, respectively, the young and old writer Iris Murdoch. The film follows a memoir by Murdoch's husband, critic John Bayley (portrayed by Oscar nominee Jim Broadbent), about a once-synergistic relationship ultimately challenged by Alzheimer's. Critics say both actresses bring the "literary lioness to life": Winslet by the "fruitful union of her voluptuous body with [a] hard-edged, impudently intellectual countenance," and Dench "by her magisterial mental authority slowly crumpling" into "horrible confusion" (Andrew Sarris, the New York Observer). But even though many praise "the fluidity with which the past slides into the present" (Schwarzbaum), a scant few call the film "leaden-footed" (Elvis Mitchell, the New York Times). (Click here to watch Dench's Oscar "moment.")—A.B.

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Crossroads (Paramount). It ain't as bad as Glitter, but that doesn't mean that Britney Spears' movie debut is any good. Spears stars as a Georgia high-school valedictorian (!) whose cross-country road trip features: a cute guy; a succession of cute outfits; and a fortuitous trip to a karaoke bar. Spears' performance gets not-terrible reviews: "Spears acquits herself as well as anyone might, in a movie as contrived and lazy as this one" (John Anderson, the Los Angeles Times). In a weird move that sounds much more interesting than Crossroads itself, Desson Howe of the Washington Post's review is written to Britney and includes the sentence "I'm feeling verklempt about you right now." (The audience of Crossroads is treated to hearing the lyrics to Spears' "I'm Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman" read as her character's "poetry." Click here for those oh-so-poetic lyrics.)— B.W.

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Return to Never Land (Disney). Critics say this Peter Pan sequel, "the latest manifestation of Walt Disney Studios' curious impulse to update its classic animated features," (Gene Seymour, the Los Angeles Times) is likable if not up to the standard of the 1953 original. Eschewing "contemporization,"Return's animators "give us Peter the elfin-eared sprite very much as we remember him" (Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly) along with a traditional message about learning to believe in fairies and such. Departing from the trend created by Toy Story and Monsters, Inc., Return to Never Land"lacks the in-jokes and sly references that allow a movie to function on two levels" (Roger Ebert, the Chicago Sun-Times). As such, its appeal to adults probably lies in its brevity: "Children, particularly those under 10, will likely enjoy the story; parents probably will like the 72-minute running time" (Claudia Puig, USA Today). (Click here for some disturbing anecdotes about Peter Pan and Michael Jackson.)— B.M.L.

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Super Troopers (Fox Searchlight). Claiming "anyone can do crude humor,"Rolling Stone's wannabe badass Peter Travers writes that this collection of "hit-and-miss skits" concerns "five fuck-up Vermont state troopers who spend their days measuring their dicks, hassling stoners and speeders, and trying to save their jobs." Others react to the film just as strongly but manage to keep their reviews rated G. "The exposition-to-pratfalls ratio," says the Village Voice's Mark Holcomb, is "punishingly high: For every roadside set piece there's at least one inert scene of plot-propelling blather." And the New York Times' A.O. Scott adds: "I am always happy to defend good-humored bad taste, but Super Troopers is bad and tasteless. You laugh neither with it nor at it but rather sit counting the minutes while the movie laughs, for no good reason, at itself." (Click here for the official Web site.)— A.B.

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Books
Black Livingstone: A Tale of True Adventure in the Nineteenth-Century Congo, by Pagan Kennedy (Viking). Despite finding fault with it, critics ultimately recommend this biography of William Henry Sheppard, a black missionary famous for exposing the genocide executed by the Congo's 19th-century Belgian leaders. Kennedy "offers a smoothly written tale of Sheppard's life, and is to be commended for bringing this extraordinary story to greater prominence" (Samantha Power, the Washington Post). Yet several kvetch that she "strains to flesh out her sources with speculation" (Dinitia Smith, the New York Times). And worse, says the San Francisco Chronicle's Alex Abramovich, is the "inordinate amount of space" she spends "explaining the obvious and repeating herself": It "contributes, along with a strangely clumsy, gee-whiz style, to the nagging sense that [the book] is a history for young adults, misclassified, somehow, during the marketing process." (Click here to read an interview with Kennedy.)— A.B.

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Tobacco: A Cultural History of How an Exotic Plant Seduced Civilization, by Iain Gately (Grove). Mostly bad reviews for the British journalist's tracing of "tobacco's history and our relationship to it, going back to its discovery 18,000 years ago" (Carmela Ciuraro, the Los Angeles Times). Some, like Ciuraro, feel that "Gately's obvious passion for his subject" and "impressively exhaustive research make [the book] challenging for any reader, including the most fervent anti-smoker, to resist enjoying." Yet others maintain it "over-centralizes tobacco's place and stretches points" (Robbie Hudson, Sunday Times). The Washington Post's Jonathan Yardley adds, Gately "is an amusing writer" who "knows it," sporting "smarty-pants prose." But even more troubling are Gately's "irresponsible, or at least hazy statements" that insist "reliable studies" in Great Britain prove that "smoking doesn't necessarily have adverse effects on smokers" (Ciuraro). (Click here to read the American Council on Science and Health's report, "Environmental Tobacco Smoke: Health Risk or Health Hype?")— 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.

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

Ben Wasserstein is an associate editor at New York magazine.

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