The critics' take on All About the Benjamins, etc.

Highlights from the week in criticism.
March 8 2002 3:26 PM

A Slow Time Machine

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Movies All About the Benjamins (New Line). Indifference toward this mismatched-duo comedy/crime caper starring Ice Cube and Mike Epps. The plot, "so formulaic it seems almost ritualized" (Gene Seymour, the Los Angeles Times), serves mainly as a vehicle for stunts, chases, and comedic banter. Director Kevin Bray "prefers messing with the film speed or cranking up the music to editing with any grace or coherence," says the New York Times' A.O. Scott, "but he does have an eye for the dazzle and sleaze of the city." Cube and Epps "enact their standard odd-couple tango with such ease and brio, you'd think they'd never seen such movies before" (Seymour), though several critics note that the occasional bits of humor are outweighed by "lame, offensive gags" such as a scene in which torture is played for laughs (Claudia Puig, USA Today). (Click here to enter the official All About the Benjamins sweepstakes.)— B.M.L.

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The Time Machine (DreamWorks). Critics call the latest adaptation of H.G. Wells' time-travel story "dull," "witless," "drab," "uninviting," "pallid," and "haphazard," saying it has little to offer but special effects. "The set design, the great miniature models, the cinematography—these are the main reasons to see the movie. In fact, these are the only reasons," says Desson Howe in the Washington Post. Guy Pearce gets some praise for performing gamely in the starring role, though he spends most of his time "gaping at the wonders of the future worlds that have been created by special-effects technicians" (Elvis Mitchell, the New York Times). Jeremy Irons, who apparently "did not learn his lesson" from an embarrassing turn in last year's fantasy flop Dungeons & Dragons (Roger Ebert, the Chicago Sun-Times), draws almost universal derision for his performance as a villain of the future who, as an uncanny number of critics point out, looks a lot like '70s rock star Edgar Winter. (Click here for the movie's official site, which contains photos of Irons, and here for a photo of Winter.)— B.M.L.

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Music
Cake and Pie, by Lisa Loeb (A&M). Sweet success for this second album from the geek-chic songstress of Reality Bites-soundtrack fame. Flavored with "sizzling electric guitars" that "vivify [her] streams of consciousness" (Marie Elsie St. Leger, Rolling Stone), critics note "Loeb's strength is her clarity and simplicity: When built around her voice and guitar, her songs have an appealing, conversational intimacy"; "this is one folkie who knows the power of an anthemic chorus," even if it's a little "antiseptically produced" (David Browne, Entertainment Weekly). Her collaborators also win acclaim: Co-writers "Dweezil Zappa (her boyfriend), Grammy darling Glen Ballard, and country-bluegrass luminary Randy Scruggs," contribute to a "darned good record, both for its variety and its spirited insights into the human condition" (Steve Morse, the Boston Globe). And doggone it, she's purty, too! (Click here to visit Loeb's Web site, which includes, among other things, a virtual ball of yarn for the Internet-savvy feline.)— A.B.

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Living Proof, by Cher (Warner Bros.). Brassy appraisals of Cher's ability to do what she does best: "modern two-step rhythms, throbbing house beats, shimmery synths and Vocoder effects" that "blur together into one endlessly vibrating mechanism, with [Cher] the gooey human center" (Natalie Nichols, the Los Angeles Times). It's her authenticity that inspires doubt among critics: Some call "A Song for the Lonely"—"dedicated to 'the courageous people of New York' "—"an empowering jam that deserves to rock the world just as [1998's] 'Believe' did" (Billboard). Others scoff: "Coming from a willfully wiggy billion-dollar diva, this noble stuff feels calculated, particularly when it's presented in such a sparkling, showbizzy package" (Barry Walters, Rolling Stone). "Not even her throaty, over-enunciated sincerity can make the repetitive points of feeling lonely/being happy/getting cosmic very interesting" (Nichols). (Click here for a puffy interview with Cher about her kids' reactions to 9/11.)— A.B.

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White Lillies Island, by Natalie Imbruglia (RCA). Reviewers are torn as to whether or not this ex-Aussie, ex-soap star's second album scores. Certain critics find her style unique: "Imbruglia shines—both as a singer with a breathy but sweet voice and as a songwriter who packs the right blend of individual creativity and universal emotion into each song" (Wayne Hoffman, Billboard). But others dub the disc "thoroughly catchy, utterly hummable, and impossible to fault except for its lack of any stamp of authorship": The music sounds like that of the Sundays' Harriet Wheeler and the Beatles (Pat Blashill, Rolling Stone). Even more damning: "Ocassionally [Imbruglia's] exuberance works against her" (Dan Aquilante, the New York Post), and the result is"ear candy with about as much emotional resonance as Kathie Lee Gifford's latest televised crying jag" (Blashill). (Click here to visit Imbruglia's Web site, which streams her videos.) A.B.

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Source Tags & Codes, by ...  And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead (Interscope). Upbeat feedback for the Austin alt-rockers' third album and major-label debut. Entertainment Weekly's Will Hermes sums it up well: "Hardcore punk outbursts alternate with art-rock feedback flights and dreamy bits of melody that somehow fuse into a coherent, often spectacular, album." Other critics agree, noting the group transcends the "fatigued genre" of alt-rock with unusual passion, skill, and attitude: "The band's power comes not from open assault, however, but from holding back the maelstrom" (Mark Jenkins, the Washington Post). Just beware: This isn't traditionally melodic rock. "What the group may lack in purely catchy tunes it makes up for in primal ferocity" (Rodrigo Perez, CMJ). (Click here for MP3s or to read about the Mayan Books of the Dead, the text of which gave name to the band.)—A.B

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Books
Ambling Into History: The Unlikely Odyssey of George W. Bush, by Frank Bruni (HarperCollins). Drecky reviews for this W. campaign chronicle by the Bush-friendly New York Times correspondent. Critics cite plenty of paradoxes: 1) "Bruni is writing not so much about Bush as about what it's like to cover him; [the book's] real value is as media criticism" (Christopher Caldwell, the Washington Post). 2) "Bruni builds [Bush's] likability brick by brick, which makes the case well, but at times makes Ambling a fairly plodding exercise" (David Hinckley, the New York Daily News). 3) The detail-oriented author appears "wholly uninterested in policy": "Instead, he winks at the reader about how his own tendency to succumb to the pressures of pack journalism contributed to the 'stunning superficiality of American politics' " (Ryan Lizza, the Washington Monthly). (Click here to read an excerpt.)— A.B.

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The Rotters' Club, by Jonathan Coe (Knopf). Opposing views on this '70s-era novel about four British prep-schoolers and their loud cultural landscape. Some critics feel that "Coe delivers a remarkably fine-grained portrait of how the signal upheavals of the time convulsed the most basic ways that people made sense of their world" (Chris Lehmann, the Washington Post). But others assert: 1) that he "fails quite completely to create real characters" (Jonathan Levi, the Los Angeles Times); and 2) that the "narrative is constantly on the verge of falling to pieces" (Noah Robischon, Entertainment Weekly). Even more exasperating, writes Newsday's Polly Schulman, is the book's lack of an ending, sketchily rationalized with an author's note, saying a sequel is in the works: Acknowledging "the structural problem without correcting it seems like a cop-out." (Click here to read an amusing excerpt.)— A.B.

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