The critics' take on Minority Report, etc.

Highlights from the week in criticism.
June 21 2002 4:59 PM

Spielberg Scores

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Movies
Minority Report (20th Century Fox). Reviews for this Spielberg-directed sci-fi thriller range from very good to excellent. (The plot, about a police officer who prevents crimes predicted by psychics until he is accused himself, is taken from a story by Philip K. Dick.) The most enthusiastic critic is the Chicago Sun-Times' Roger Ebert, who calls the film "a triumph" and says it "reminds us why we go to the movies in the first place." Other reviewers have complaints; the Los Angeles Times' Kenneth Turan writes that the movie's attempt to combine a murder mystery, a blockbuster action movie, and a philosophical discussion of free will is not completely coherent; a few other critics complain about the too-convenient ending. All praise Spielberg's direction, the bleak-gray-future cinematography, and the performances of stars Tom Cruise and Samantha Morton. Several mention the movie's relevance to current discussions of how to balance terrorism prevention and civil liberties. Writes USA Today's Mike Clark: "It's as topical as movies get." (Read Slate's Dahlia Lithwick on how this story echoes the incarceration of Jose Padilla, and read David Edelstein's review of the film in Slate.)— B.M.L.

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Lilo and Stitch (Disney). Mixed reviews for this new Disney animation about an alien who lands in Hawaii to become the compatriot of an angry little orphaned girl. The New York Times' A.O. Scott calls it a "sweet, charming tale of intergalactic friendship"; and the Los Angeles Times' Kenneth Turan praises the visuals and unconventional qualities of its "scruffy, unpleasant outcasts." But detractors have serious points to make. Entertainment Weekly's Owen Gleiberman brands the story "witless and oddly defanged," and calls Stitch (the alien) a "demonic koala bear crossed with Pikachu from Pokémon" who has "zero dimension as a character." Yet the chief criticism is even more damning: The movie "borrows a bit too heavily from Steven Spielberg's E.T." (Loren King, the Chicago Tribune). (Visit the Web site.)— A.B.

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Juwanna Mann (Warner Bros.). Even the few critics who find this farce (about an expelled NBA star who dresses in drag to lead the WNBA) "amusing" also call it "sloppy" and "stunningly unoriginal" (A.O. Scott, the New York Times). "All the restroom jokes are exhausted early on" and "[e]verything else stems from derivative gags borrowed or recycled from a genre last explored in the terrible Sorority Boys" (Robert K. Elder, the Chicago Tribune). The only saving grace? The "comedic energy" of actor Tommy Davidson as a hip-hop playa named Puff Smokey Smoke (Scott). (Visit the Web site.)— A.B.

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War Photographer (First Run/Icarus Films). Opinions on this Oscar-nominated documentary seem to pivot on whether or not critics appreciate the art and ethics of the film's subject, celebrated photojournalist James Nachtwey. Supporters claim that "[w]hat makes director Christian Frei's film so compelling is the immediacy of the footage" (Lou Lumenick, the New York Post). But the Village Voice's Jessica Winter disagrees and takes the point further: Nachtwey's "show-don't-tell stance is admirable, but it can make him a problematic documentary subject. War Photographer infers the psychological and physical toll of his peripatetic existence, but provides scant insight into his technique—one that often results in incongruously meticulous compositions of human degradation." (View Nachtwey's 9/11 photo essay.)— A.B.

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Music
Universal Truths and Cycles, by Guided By Voices (Matador). Raves for the prolific indie-rock stalwarts' latest, "an excellent album that shows off [band leader Robert Pollard's] songwriting skills" (Jennifer Maerz, the Washington Post). These favorite sons of Dayton, Ohio, return to Matador Records, their mid-'90s home, and make a concurrent return to the lo-fi self-production that defined their earlier work. "GBV are self-produced once again and simultaneously looser and sharper as a result" (Rob O'Connor, RollingStone.com). The band's MO is nicely laid out by Stewart Lee of the London Times: "Pollard writes punchy guitar-pop songs as perfect as the Who, the Sex Pistols and early REM, sings them like a chain-smoking choirboy, then disfigures them with as-live production values and titles that could be assembled from cut-up newspaper headlines." (Read a Slate "Culturebox" that praises Pollard's "sublimely intelligent, emotionally direct music." Buy.)— B.W.

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Masquerade, by Wyclef Jean (Columbia). Underwhelmed reviews for the former Fugee's latest. Jean is best, critics say, when he "sticks closer to his reggae-infused R&B/hip-hop roots" (Steve Jones, USA Today) and does so often enough here to make the album "entertaining" (Robert Christgau, Rolling Stone). Unfortunately, he also "runs his mandate of eclecticism at all costs into the ground" (Jim Farber, New York Daily News) with too much world-music genre mixing and "crass, attention-seeking" (Josh Tyrangiel, Time) moves such as a "hideous" (Tyrangiel) update of Franki Valli's "December, 1963 (Oh What a Night)" and a guest appearance from Tom Jones that draws derision from almost everyone. (Watch Wyclef music videos on his official site. Buy.)— B.M.L.

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Books Big If, by Mark Costello (Norton). "With his second novel, Costello enters the big leagues of American fiction," reads Jay McInerney's New York Times kicker. Other reviewers agree, praising this assassination meta-thriller about a Secret Service agent and her video-game programmer brother for: 1) its "oblique angles, giving richly detailed panoramas of a country whose surrealistic mysteries are spilling out of their marginal worlds and into the mainstream" (Tom Nolan, the Wall Street Journal); 2) its women, who are "at least as convincing and complicated as [its] men"; 3) a "virtuosic" mastery of "arcane" government and computer "lingo"; and 4) a narrative "spellbound by process" (McInerney) that "cannily wrings hilarity from dread" (Troy Patterson, Entertainment Weekly). (Listen to Costello read from Big If.)— A.B.

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The Perfect Store: Inside eBay, by Adam Cohen (Little, Brown). Mediocre reviews for this chronicle of the rise of the Internet's best auction site (if not its best business) by a New York Times editorial writer. Joseph Nocera calls the prose "brisk" and "workmanlike" in his Times review, complimenting Cohen's "willingness to stray from the classic business narrative into the gnarlier issues of community and idealism" but deriding his refusal "to probe into places that eBay clearly didn't want probed." In fact, Cohen "seems to drop all skepticism with regards to [eBay founder Pierre Omidyar]" even if he blows the cover off Omidyar's famous yarn that he founded eBay to find Pez dispensers (J. Alex Tarquinio, the San Francisco Chronicle). (Read a chapter.)— A.B.

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The Fasting Girl: A True Victorian Medical Mystery, by Michelle Stacey (Putnam). Gluttonously good notices for this book about Mollie Fancher, a 19th-century Brooklyn teen who, after being accidentally dragged by a trolley, took to her bed for the next 50 years, refrained from eating, experienced trances, clairvoyance, and multiple personalities, and became a tabloid wonder. Critics offer two main compliments: 1) "In Stacey's hands," Fancher "personified the late-19th-century collision between post-Darwinian science and Victorian spirituality" (Margot Mifflin, the Village Voice). And 2) Fancher receives "a compulsively readable" portrait, "intertwining topics as diverse as the media, anorexia, religion, feminism, and the nature of entertainment" (Gillian Flynn, Entertainment Weekly). (Learn more about Mollie Fancher.)— 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.