The critics' take on Spider-Man, etc.

Highlights from the week in criticism.
May 3 2002 4:32 PM

Good Spidey Sense

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Movies Spider-Man (Columbia Tristar). Good, not great, reviews for the summer's first big release. "Disarmingly entertaining" (Desson Howe, the Washington Post), the film earns praise for its surprisingly-good-for-a-blockbuster romance ("it's that rare cartoon movie in which the villain is less involving than the love story," says Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times); the performance of star Tobey Maguire ("disarmingly likable," says A.O. Scott of the New York Times); and the way director Sam Raimi demonstrates that he understands the "simpler satisfactions of superhero worship" (Scott) by bringing out the metaphorical meaning of "the most alienated teenage superhero of the 1960s" (J. Hoberman, the Village Voice). Critics' biggest problems are with the numerous action scenes, which "zip along like perfunctory cartoons" (Roger Ebert, the Chicago Sun-Times), and the special effects, which "look like a waste of money" (Scott). On the whole, though, the film is a "crowd-pleaser" (Mike Clark, USA Today). (Click here for the official Marvel Comics Spider-Man site.)— B.M.L.

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Hollywood Ending (DreamWorks). Reviews for Woody Allen's new Tinseltown farce, about a has-been director who goes blind, predictably fall into three categories. 1) Worshipful: "Allen is both more scathingly funny and self-deprecatingly vulnerable than he's seemed since Annie Hall" (John Anderson, Newsday). 2) Tempered: "[T]here aren't many more belly laughs than those seen in the coming attractions," yet "Allen has surpassed himself with the magic he's spun" with leading lady Tea Leoni (Andrew Sarris, the New York Observer). 3) Downright negative: Allen's "nervous middle-aged man who acts like a nervous teenager" façade "no longer looks good on him," and the "whole damn persona has passed from the charming to the irritating, turning into a clattering-boned parody of itself" (Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly). (Click here for the trailer.)— A.B.

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Deuces Wild (United Artists). Truly foul reviews for this "preposterously melodramatic paean to gang-member teens" set in 1958 Brooklyn, N.Y., and starring Matt Dillon, Stephen Dorff, and Brad Renfro (Steve Daly, Entertainment Weekly). "The theatrical choreography, jump-cut editing and slow-motion cinematography leave you with the feeling of watching a road company rehearsal of West Side Story filmed for MTV" (Stephen Holden, the New York Times). "The cast all do their best but the movie around them slowly disintegrates into an ensemble shouting match of unconvincing Brooklyn accents" (William Arnold, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer). And "[w]hile [ Sopranos actors] Drea De Matteo and Louis Lombardi are used well, it's impossible to look at Vincent Pastore as the local priest without a giggle: 'Father Big Pussy' "(Andy Klein, New Times Los Angeles). (Click here for the film's Web site.)— A.B. Books
Why We Fight: Moral Clarity and the War on Terrorism, by William J. Bennett (Doubleday). Surprise! Critics uninterested in challenging this right-wing pundit all write for conservative journals. The National Review's Michael Potemra gushes that in this "patriotic exhortation to firmness in our current struggle," Bennett is "absolutely correct: Human rights, diversity, and tolerance are at the heart of what it means to be American." And the Weekly Standard's Beth Henary simply describes (and forgets to judge) Bennett's argument "that the steady drip of anti-American hostility—trickling from the intellectual elite all the way down to grade schools—must be turned off." Funny that Benjamin Schwarz in the more liberal Washington Post both finds Bennett's "overblown rhetoric" lacking "verve, style and wit," and that in the process of "whitewashing our country's history and conduct," [he] "inadvertently undermine[s] [his] own argument." (Click here to read Bennett's take on "The Morality of Anger.")— A.B.

 

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Paperboy: Confessions of a Future Engineer, by Henry Petroski (Knopf). In the past reviewers were wowed by this Duke engineer's penchant for detail in books like The Evolution of Useful Things. But in this memoir about his days as a paperboy in 1950s New York suburbia, detail is exactly what does "poor Henry Petroski" in. He piles it on, from his tiresome "fascination in how each room of his house looked" to "how he assembled his bike and folded his newspapers" (Clyde Haberman, the New York Times). Worse, this problem "is underscored by his tendency to connect everything he did as a teenager to the adult [civil scientist] he eventually became" (Jonathan Yardley, the Washington Post). All this SJ writer will admit is that being a paperboy attracted me to journalism. (Click here to read an excerpt about Petroski's childhood move from Brooklyn to the pioneering Cambria Heights section of Queens.)— A.B.

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Music Release, by Pet Shop Boys (Parlaphone). Excellent notices for this West End duo's latest self-produced album. "The Pet Shop Boys are among the finest British songwriters to emerge from the Eighties. Many rockers might find that notion ludicrous, because they can't get past the British duo's willfully synthetic textures and trend-conscious beats. Yet admirers of melodic craft and pointed poetry—even those stricken with synth-pop allergies—should consider Release" (Barry Walters, Rolling Stone). In fact, critics even consider the songs viable pop-culture commentaries: "On 'The Night I Fell in Love,' Pet Shop Boys turn the tables on the macho and homophobic stylings of rappers like Eminem" writing "about a schoolboy who meets his favorite rap star, discovers he's gay, and sleeps with him" (Michael Paoletta, Billboard). (Click here to visit the band's official Web site, where you can watch the album's video press kit.)— A.B.

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Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, by Wilco (Nonesuch Records). "A better album may be released this year," says the Washington Post's Joshua Klein, "but don't bet on it." Every critic mentions the album's tortured path to shelves: The band switched labels after Reprise rejected Yankee as too uncommercial. Pretty ironic, because this album is hailed as "an instant classic" (Ed Masley, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette). The alt-country pioneers move toward Sonic Youth-style sonic adventurism, and "[t]he result is gorgeous. … The band has lost its 'roots' and found its voice" (Benjamin Nugent, Time). There's no confusion about the album's excellence, but there is some disagreement about which year the long-delayed album should be considered as belonging to: "[T]here is simply no denying that this was the album of 2001," writes Jim DeRogatis in the Chicago Sun-Times. (Click here for a Wilco discography with copious audio samples.)— B.W.

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Romantica, by Luna (Jet Set). Although "nothing here is as strong as any of the standouts on Luna's mid-Nineties classic, Penthouse" (Tom Kielty, the Boston Globe), critics say this album from the New York indie rockers will give fans "lots of what they have come to expect" (Kielty) from the band: "pleasantly wispy" songs (Christian Hoard, Rolling Stone), "accessible hooks" (Kielty), and arrangements that create a "comfortable cocoon of dream pop" with "psychedelic swirls" (Chris Larry, CMJ). The Washington Post's Shannon Zimmerman offers one note of dissent, complaining that frontman Dean Wareham's lyrics suffer from "a terminal case of the cutes," but she admits that "he's more than capable of making up in seductive guitar-pop music what he lacks as a singer or lyricist." (Click here for the band's official site.) (To read a Slate"Culturebox" about Luna and Romantica, click here.)— B.M.L.

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Stereo/Mono, by Paul Westerberg (Vagrant). Good reviews for this ex-Replacement's latest two-disc release, featuring Westerberg himself as well as his alter-ego, Grandpaboy. Critics like Stereo, Westerberg's nonfictional disc, better, saying his "weary conviction glimmers with humor and hope, and the ace melodies are a balm for the morning-after blues" (Greg Kot, Rolling Stone). Mono is less well-liked, with Kot calling it "a misguided attempt to approximate the ramshackle sound" of the Replacements. But numerous reviewers are less critical: "Whether soft-boiled or hard-edged, Westerberg's music retains its signature melodic breeziness and effortless rise-and-fall shape. In his sometimes tough, sometimes tender character sketches and diary-like observations, he's again a voice of reassurance for those who have a hard time finding a place to fit in the world" (Richard Cromelin, the Los Angeles Times). (Click here to listen to songs from the album.)— 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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