The critics' take on We Were Soldiers, etc.

Highlights from the week in criticism.
March 1 2002 4:20 PM

Salute to Vietnam

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Movies
We Were Soldiers (Paramount). Critics salute this Mel Gibson Vietnam film about the Battle of LZ X-Ray in November 1965, the first meeting between American and Vietnamese forces. The film's noncombat sequences featuring the soldiers' home lives are accused of "extremes of corniness" (Kenneth Turan, the Los Angeles Times), but the scenes of battle "have a hard, realistic focus" (A. O. Scott, the New York Times). Many critics appreciatively note the movie's effort to portray the Viet Cong as "equally heroic individuals who just happened to be on the wrong side of the fence" (Turan). Soldiers has "palpable filmmaking passion and production heft" (Mike Clark, USA Today); ultimately, it is "unbearably searing and saddening" (Stephen Hunter, the Washington Post). (Click here to read the prologue to We Were Soldiers Once … And Young, the memoir on which the film is based.)— B.W.

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40 Days, 40 Nights (Miramax). "Abstinence: What a concept!" cries the Chicago Tribune's Michael Wilmington in response to this comedy about a Web designer (Josh Hartnett) who, in the wake of post-breakup promiscuity, gives up sex for Lent. Critics' complaints? 1) The plot's a Seinfeld rip-off; and 2) it's nothing more than a "movie about a hard-on" that "relentlessly pounds a flaccid premise" (Peter Travers, Rolling Stone). Yet despite a barrage of unfunny "Viagra jokes, boner jokes, and ersatz-Farrelly Dad-talks-about-sex jokes,"40 Days"gets better as it goes along" for some critics, due to Hartnett's "hurtin' James Dean stare" (Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly). As if that's enough to make it anything more than "Lysistrata for the readers of Maxim" (Elvis Mitchell, the New York Times). (Click here for an audiovisual tour of Seinfeld's award-winning episode "The Contest.")— A.B.

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Wendigo (Magnolia). Critics fancy this "supernatural chiller" by Larry Fessenden about a family's Catskills vacation, a malcontented hunter, and a kid's terrifying connection to the Native American man-beast of the title. "A movie of suggestion and foreboding, most of it filtered through [a child's] spooked consciousness" (J. Hoberman, the Village Voice), "Fessenden carefully blurs the line between psychology and the supernatural, suggesting that each is strongly implicated in the other" (Dave Kehr, the New York Times). But while most praise "the tension created out of thin air" and the actors, who have an "unforced, natural quality that looks easy but is hard to do," the Chicago Sun-Times' Roger Ebert can't recommend it without reservations: "Wendigo is a good movie with an ending that doesn't work." (Click here to view the trailer.)— A.B.

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How To Kill Your Neighbor's Dog (Artistic License). Mixed reviews for this "comedy of male menopause" starring Kenneth Branagh as a frustrated playwright in Los Angeles (Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly). Multiple tangents about impotence, fear of fatherhood, a neighbor child with cerebral palsy, and a homeless stalker turn the film into a "near-novelistic stew" (Gene Seymour, Newsday). And though some critics think this abundance of plot "stirs up an insistent verbal energy that rarely flags" (Stephen Holden, the New York Times), others say it "often seems too thick to go down ... much of what the movie spouts about life, art, love and friendship sounds as if you've heard it all before" (Seymour). Two elements of the film earn praise from almost everyone: Branagh's performance and the "appealingly low-key" subplot about the main character's friendship with his neighbor's young daughter (Justine Elias, the Village Voice). (Click here for an online game called "Kill the Taco Bell dog.")— B.M.L.

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Trouble Every Day (Lot 47). Very few positives for this shocker by French director Claire Denis about American honeymooners in Paris who fall into the mouths of a couple of everyday cannibals. Centered on a Parisian researcher who revs up human libidos to the point where sexuality morphs into true hunger for flesh, the film "makes repeated displays of lust and bloodshed seem faintly silly when they should seem powerfully, disturbingly allegorical" (Kevin Thomas, the Los Angeles Times). Worse, "the movie's fragmentary narrative style makes piecing [it] together frustratingly difficult" (Stephen Holden, the New York Times). The only virtues: actress Béatrice Dalle as "a scarifying Cro-Magnon beauty"; cinematographer Agnès Godard's "sensuous impressionism"; and the "jagged romanticism of the Tindersticks score" (J. Hoberman, the Village Voice). (Click here to view the trailer.)— A.B.

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Music
Under Rug Swept, by Alanis Morissette (Maverick). Critics say that the folk-rocker's latest, written and produced without longtime collaborator Glen Ballard, is excellent musically and terrible lyrically. "Sonically, she has learned all she needs," writes Rolling Stone's Jon Pareles. "The music is brawny and meticulous, folk rock driven by hip-hop beats, ballads that build without getting gooey and hard rock aswirl with psychedelia." But Morrisette's "rhyme-free New Age poetry" lyrics (Edna Gundersen, USA Today) are "some of the clumsiest to be heard on a pop record in years" (David Browne, Entertainment Weekly). A sample chorus: "I embrace you for your faith in the face of adversarial forces that I represent." Says Pareles, "Under Rug Swept just about drowns in psychobabble." (Click here for an Alanis time line, which includes information about her early careers as a child actor and Canadian teen pop star.)— B.M.L.

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Always Got Tonight, by Chris Isaak (Reprise). Reactions to this rockabilly-cum-television star's latest album could be worse. Many agree both that Isaak "avoids trendy musical makeovers, sticking to rootsy tunes" as "endearingly retro" as his pompadour, and that "his voice quivers with romantic regret," evoking Roy Orbison via "an airy falsetto" (Chuck Arnold, People). But some call the music "lazy" and its rhymes "downright indolent": "Instead of handcrafting love letters, Isaak grabs Hallmarks off the rack" (Elaine Beebe Lapriore, the Washington Post). While most reviewers claim he performs with "charming, seasoned assurance" (Beth Johnson, Entertainment Weekly), detractors who blast his songwriting describe him as a "half-there: probably just tired from his other job" (Lapriore). (Click here for the Web site to Isaak's autobiographically fictional TV show.)— A.B.

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Books
Salt: A World History, by Mark Kurlansky (Walker & Co.). Critics respond to this brackish chronicle of a seasoning by repeating savory details of Kurlanksy's exhaustive findings (e.g., that a diet based on shrimp and worms found in salt ponds is responsible for a flamingo's pinkish hue). Most agree it's a "cunning palimpset through which to view the American Revolution, the origins of McIlhenny's Tabasco sauce, the sciences of geology and chemistry, and plain old greed" (Daneet Steffens, Entertainment Weekly). In fact "what keeps Salt from being just a dry recitation of factoids" is its "sense of wonder" (Regina Schrambling, the New York Times). Only one dig: "The book's parts do not coalesce into an explanatory whole" (Sidney W. Mintz, the Washington Post). (Click here for a narrative picture gallery from the book's official Web site.)— A.B.

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Fingersmith, by Sarah Waters (Riverhead). Strong notices for this "alternative Dickensian fiction" about 19th-century lesbian orphans who couple. Most concur "Waters, who has written a Ph.D. thesis on gay and lesbian historical fiction, turns that scholarly material to splendid fictional use": "[T]his is a Victorian novel the Victorians never dreamed of writing" (Tom Gilling, the New York Times). "As fortunes are reversed and concealed identities revealed, Waters probes at the very notion of identity." And "the dialogue rings true to period yet also specific to character" (Michael Upchurch, the Seattle Times). The chief criticism? "Fingersmith, even in its title, promises naughty playfulness, but in the end it is disappointingly demure" (Aiobheann Sweeney, the Washington Post). (Click here to listen to Waters read from the book.)— 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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