The critics' take on the Bourne Identity, etc.

Highlights from the week in criticism.
June 14 2002 4:57 PM

Paperback Movie

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Movies
The Bourne Identity (Universal). The New York Times' A.O. Scott calls this spy thriller the cinematic equivalent of an airplane paperback—entertaining if insignificant—and most critics would agree. Based on a Robert Ludlum novel, it's a "a skillful action movie about a plot that exists only to support a skillful action movie," says the Chicago Sun-Times' Roger Ebert. Reviewers find the martial arts and chase scenes "nicely executed" (Scott), and several mention that the script's lack of Larger Meaning is actually refreshing. Says Scott: "At a moment when big, dumb thrillers like The Sum of All Fears find themselves suddenly burdened with expectations of relevance, the utter and systematic irrelevance of The Bourne Identity to anything currently or formerly happening in the world comes as something of a relief." (Click here to read David Edelstein's review in Slate and here to read about the 1988 TV adaptation of this book.)— B.M.L.

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Windtalkers (MGM). Critics are disappointed by action maestro John Woo's first war movie. The film is based on the United States' use of the Navajo language as a code during World War II. It's fascinating history, but "the filmmakers have buried it beneath battlefield clichés, while centering the story on a white character played by Nicolas Cage" (Roger Ebert, the Chicago Sun-Times). The combat scenes are "as kinetic (and as splattery) as any ever filmed" (David Edelstein, Slate), but they may not serve the movie: "[ Windtalkers'] style keeps getting in the way of the action and the emotion" (Stephen Hunter, the Washington Post). (Click here for Windtalkers' official site.)— B.W.

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Scooby-Doo (Warner Bros.). Lisa Schwarzbaum of Entertainment Weekly starts her review with "Ruh-roh! Romething's really wrong with this ricture!" which tidily encapsulates critics' strong dislike for the live-action adaptation of the '70s cartoon. In a huge insult, Robin Rauzi of the Los Angeles Times writes, "this Scooby-Doo is entertainment more disposable than Hanna-Barbera's half-hour cartoons ever were." Most critics compare the computer-generated Scooby to Jar Jar Binks, but Matthew Lillard, surprisingly enough, gets raves: "[A] highly accurate and intensely sublime performance as Shaggy" (Hank Stuever, the Washington Post). Still, as USA Today's Claudia Puig says, "Here's a classic example of a movie that didn't need to be made." (Click here for the Cartoon Network's comprehensive minisite dedicated to the Scooby cartoons.)—B.W.

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The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys (ThinkFilm). Appreciative reviews for this Catholic-school coming-of-age film. "Sweet but not saccharine" (J. Hoberman, the Village Voice), the movie "digs into the flaming recesses of the adolescent mind" (Stephen Holden, the New York Times) with "an honest kid's-eye view" (Hoberman) that's much more realistic than most Hollywood teen movies. "It's Stand By Me minus the 20/20 hindsight of adulthood," writes Claudia Puig in USA Today. Earning particular praise are the performances of young stars Kieran Culkin, Emile Hirsch, and Jena Malone, as well as animated fantasy sequences drawn by Todd McFarlane, which Holden calls the film's "masterstroke." (Click here for a review of the book upon which the movie is based.)— B.M.L.

The Emperor's New Clothes (Paramount). "Movies love to ask what-if," writes the New York Times' Stephen Holden in response to this farce that inquires, "What if Napoleon Bonaparte, in his exile on St. Helena, had arranged for a double to impersonate him so he could sneak back to France to reclaim his imperial status?" (Holden). Though a few critics compliment Ian Holm's Bonaparte and call the question "clever" (Lisa Schwarzbaum, Entertainment Weekly), most just don't care. Complaints: 1) Holden claims the movie "doesn't pursue" its many opportunities for comedy; and 2) the Village Voice's J. Hoberman writes that for him, "deadpan understatement" would have worked better than "warm and cuddly."—A.B.

Gangster No. 1 (IFC). Bang-up notices for this debut feature from director Paul McGuigan. "[A]n unnamed gangster in 1960s London," played by Malcolm McDowell and in flashback by Paul Bettany, "goes to work for the stylish hood Freddie Mays and turns his boss into a role model and psychosexual obsession" (Peter Travers, Rolling Stone). While some call the film "canny, derivative, and wildly gruesome," it's nearly unanimous that "Bettany, the scalawag scene-stealer from A Beautiful Mind," offers a "mesmerizing" performance (Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly). New York Times critic Elvis Mitchell agrees, adding that the "psychological underpinnings" inspire "a charged emotional atmosphere," even if the film lacks some historical context. (Visit the film's Web site.)—A.B.

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Books
The Emperor of Ocean Park, by Stephen L. Carter (Knopf). Generally upbeat notices for this much-hyped first novel from the contrarian Yale law professor known for nonfiction books on affirmative action. Many critics call the "conventional thriller and account of a large, complicated, prosperous black family" (David Owen, The New Yorker) a "tale conceived by a single intelligence with a specific tone of voice, at once distinctive and convincing" (Ward Just, the New York Times). (Just's review goes on to make some odd comments about his own experiences with the black upper class, like this description of a dinner party at Vernon Jordan's: "At length, dinner broke up and the guests wandered from the porch to the living room. More than half were African-American, not one of them known to me by sight; I mean to say, no entertainers or sports figures.") There are a few detractors: "In a novel this ambitious, great characters have to be more than just the sum of their ideas" (Mark Harris, Entertainment Weekly). And some are vicious: "[E]xcept for his first-person narrator, a priggish professor at a Yale-like law school, Carter's characters barely exist. They have names, physical descriptions, sound-alike voices, nasty schemes and ugly secrets, but no selves, no life. When in a novel's climactic scene the villain's face 'twists in a snarl'—a formula right out of Nancy Drew—you know it's the writer, not the hero, who's a goner" (David Gates, Newsweek). (Read an excerpt.)— A.B.

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When I Was a Young Man, by Bob Kerrey (Harcourt). Critics say this memoir is "engrossing" (Roy Reed, the New York Times). The big story is Kerrey's account of his military service and involvement in the death of civilians at Thanh Phong, Vietnam. For this reason the book's second half is "more powerful" (Janet Maslin, the New York Times) than the first, which focuses on his Nebraska childhood. Reactions to Kerrey's treatment of Thanh Phong vary. Time's Michael Elliott praises the former senator and calls the book "a distinguished example of that classic American genre, the tale of lost innocence." In The New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert criticizes Kerrey for waiting 30 years to reveal what he knew about the massacre while allowing himself to gain a reputation as a war hero. "He rarely spoke about his war record, yet, as he surely knew, it was this record that gave him a moral edge on almost every candidate he ever ran against," she writes. (Click here for a Time magazine story on the Thanh Phong controversy. Buy.)— B.M.L.

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The Russia Hand: A Memoir of Presidential Diplomacy, by Strobe Talbott (Random House). Few critics consider this account of the Clinton-Yeltsin years by Clinton's friend and former Russia point man to be objective. Reviewers call it "intriguing but also selectively silent to the point of distortion and suspiciously devoid of analysis" (Anders Stephanson, the Los Angeles Times). Despite being "fluent with the nuances of policy," Talbott "shies away from the intricacies of human character" and "does not give us much of Clinton's horrifying and enchanting complexity" (Bill Keller, the New York Times). The New Yorker even wittily calls it "incidentally moving": "[F]ar from being a definitive history, it is instead a fascinating gesture of friendship sustained and maintained." (Read an excerpt; click here to read Talbott discuss his book with Anne Applebaum in Slate. Buy.)— A.B.

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Music
The Private Press, by DJ Shadow (MCA). Great reviews for the long-awaited follow-up to 1996's Endtroducing …. Critics use words like "stunning," "fascinating," and "phenomenal" to describe the album's genre-bending "hip-hoppy sound collage" (David Browne, Entertainment Weekly). Featuring both Moby-like dance music with "populist leanings" (Steve Hochmann, the Los Angeles Times) and avant-garde "hurricanes of cacophonous beauty" (Browne), the record combines "beats, sound effects, machine hums, found voices and mock-symphonic patterns of robot noise" (Rob Sheffield, Rolling Stone). Almost all agree that The Private Press is "an aurally hypnotizing collection that is comparable to, if not better than, Endtroducing …" (Billboard). (Click here for an interview with DJ Shadow. Buy.)— B.M.L.

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Cookie: The Anthropological Mixtape, by Me'Shell Ndegéocello (Maverick). Fantastic reviews for the latest from the bass-playing soul sister. As ever, "Ndegéocello (pronounced n-day-gay-o-chello) has remained an artist more concerned with making music for both the heart and head, instead of the cash register" (Renee Graham, the Boston Globe). Ndegéocello garners comparisons to Prince for her "incipient wisdom and/or informed perspective about love, sex, religion and social politics" (Gerald Poindexter, the San Diego Union-Tribune); Rolling Stone's Arion Berger writes, "[p]owerful, beautiful, sensual and activist, this is the record Prince keeps trying to make." Featuring vocal samples of Gil Scott-Heron and Angela Davis, this may be the most politically aware album to have music "as fiery and sensual as a new lover" (Graham). (Click here for a short biography of Ndegéocello. Did you know she has been a Bass Guitar magazine cover girl? Buy.)— B.W.

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The Last Broadcast, by the Doves (Capitol). Radiant reviews for the Machester trio's much-awaited second album. "Wow," writes Fortune's Chris Nashawaty: "Just wow." "In stark contrast to their quietly affecting 2000 debut, this disc finds [the sometimes gloomy band] in uplifting spirits" and that "amalgamation of emotions helps make Broadcast perhaps the darkest feel-good record of the year" (Brian M. Raftery, Entertainment Weekly). But despite the melancholy that keeps them British, the band "reveal a sweet pop soul that is more Beatles than brooding" (Josh Tyrangiel, Time). In fact, the "soothing but not lulling tranquility amid songs filled with little epiphanies could vault the Doves onto the Radiohead-like plateau that many critics have predicted" (Steve Morse, the Boston Globe). (Visit the Doves' Web site. Buy.)— 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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