The critics' take on The Powerpuff Girls Movie, etc.

Highlights from the week in criticism.
July 5 2002 1:16 PM

Puff Piece

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Movies
The Powerpuff Girls Movie (Warner Bros.). Mixed reviews for this big-screen version of the popular Cartoon Network creation of hip animator Craig McCracken. Fans claim that "those new to the series, as well as the already committed, will dig the anarchic Chicks Rule attitude and the snazzy art": These "three kindergarteners make up for their lack of irony with laser-power eyes, radical post-post-postfeminist blithe confidence, and some of the coolest retro-futuristic animation style this side of Gerald McBoing-Boing" (Lisa Schwarzbaum, Entertainment Weekly). Others write that the girls' superpowers "unfortunately don't enable them to discern flimsy screenplays" or "come up with a few more animated lip movements per word" (Mike Clark, USA Today). (Visit the Web site.)— A.B.

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Men in Black II (Columbia Tristar). The New York Times' A.O. Scott is the rare critic who gives this blockbuster sequel an even slightly positive review, calling it "pleasant enough" given the "trivial, ingratiating scope of its ambition." Most reviewers are more likely to agree with The New Yorker's David Denby, who writes that the film is "pretty much a disaster." Problems include the repetitive plot, the pandering overuse of gags like a talking dog, the bored performances of the leads, and the general absence of the clever creativity that made the first Men in Black a success. Writes Entertainment Weekly's Owen Gleiberman: "To call it a popcorn movie seems almost an insult to the salty, caloric butter rush of great popcorn." (Read an interview with Lowell Cunningham, creator of the Men in Black comic book that the films are based on.) (Read David Edelstein's review for Slate.)— B.M.L.

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Like Mike (20th Century Fox). Decent notices for this kids' movie starring adolescent rapper Lil Bow Wow as an orphan who becomes a basketball hero. Critics say the stock characters (an evil orphanage director, a spoiled basketball star) and by-the-numbers plot ("recycled jock piffle,"USA Today's Mike Clark calls it) are at least partly redeemed by—no kidding—Lil Bow Wow's performance. The New York Times' Elvis Mitchell calls him "a talented actor" with "unaffected comic abilities"; the Chicago Sun-Times' Roger Ebert says he's "confident," "relaxed," and "engaging." (Read the entirety of Blurb King Kevin Thomas' disturbingly adulatory review in the Los Angeles Times, which calls the details of a scene in which old sneakers are imbued with magic powers when they're hit by lightning "too inspired to be revealed here.")— B.M.L.

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The Notorious C.H.O. (Wellspring). Reviews for comedian Margaret Cho's latest concert film runs the gamut. Cho discusses "becoming a regular at a sex club, getting a colonic, having sex like a gay man, desiring butch lesbians" (Michael Martin, Nerve.com)—you get the idea. Some critics call it "brilliant and over-the-edge": "Not since the heyday of Richard Pryor has a stand-up comic reached so deeply into the confessional realm to exorcize lifelong feelings of alienation" (Stephen Holden, the New York Times). But detractors write that "[w]ith sex and eating thus transgressing parental approval, [Cho] seeks a substitute: the love of the audience"; "[s]he needs us far more than we need her" (Ed Park, the Village Voice). (Visit the film's "expressionist" Web site.)—A.B.

Me Without You (Goldwyn/Fireworks). Blah reviews for director Sandra Goldbacher's follow-up to her acclaimed debut The Governess. Here is an attempt at an "enjoyable, feelgood comedy: a bittersweet tale of two best friends [Dawson's Creek's Michelle Williams and Anna Friel] who grow up amongst [Britain's] ever-changing pop culture of the 1970s and 1980s" (Peter Bradshaw, the Guardian). Critics call it "essentially humorless" and note that all the characters' spats "concern men" (Dennis Lim, the Village Voice). The movie is a "Jane Austen-like moral parable in which goodness is rewarded and selfishness punished" (Stephen Holden, the New York Times). (View the trailer.)—A.B.

Read My Lips (Magnolia). Critics adore this "French thriller about a shy [and partially deaf] secretary (Emmanuelle Devos) who gets drawn into the criminal life of a young trainee in her office (Vincent Cassel)" (The New Yorker). Director Jacques Audiard's direction is "fluid and quick"; "[h]e uses sound editing and fast changes of perspective to mirror the effects of [the secretary's] disability" (A.O. Scott, the New York Times). And the film's "gritty immersion in the petty indignities of working life" gets "under your skin and turns its two beleaguered losers into genuine outlaw heroes" (Scott), while the punch line remains "endearingly French" (J. Hoberman, the Village Voice). (Visit Cassel's Web site.)—A.B.

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Books

The Russian Debutante's Handbook, by Gary Shteyngart (Riverhead). Acclaim for this debut novel about a young Russian-born Manhattanite who falls in with post-Soviet gangsters overseas. "Shteyngart's playful, carnivalesque sensibility fits within" the "Russian satirical-fantastic tradition," and the "sturdy conventions of the traditional novel" are "blithely disregarded in favor of digressive, madcap inventiveness" (A.O. Scott, the New York Times). Shteyngart is "adept at sentences that combine sensitivity of observation with great comic timing" (Taylor Antrim, the New York Observer). And the book ends up "as funny and wicked as Waugh" (Lev Grossman, Time). One liability: It has the "manic, willed quality of someone trying a little too hard to be outrageous without quite knowing what he is trying to say" (Scott). (Hear  Shteyngart read from the book.)—A.B.

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Music
No!, by They Might Be Giants (Idlewild/Rounder). Excellent notices for the famed Brooklyn alterna-duo's new children's album. TMBG "neither underestimates the intelligence of children, nor the younger set's propensity to enjoy gloriously unabated goofy fun" (Billboard). "Every song is a wacky discovery" from "eerie, mechanical techno-pop ('Robots on Parade') to a mellow 1960s innocence ('Where Do They Make Balloons?')" (Lynne Heffley, the Los Angeles Times). So much so, some critics even offer backhanded compliments: The "surrealistic lyrics and mockingly cartoonish arrangements" are thankfully "used as an excuse" to get wonderfully "silly and go bonkers" in a way better suited for adults than for kids (Steve Greenlee, the Boston Globe). (Visit the band's Web site. Buy.)— A.B.

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Murray Street, by Sonic Youth (DCG). Critics welcome this comeback from the "New York avant noise act" that for the last decade has been "more notable for their influence on younger experimental guitar-rock groups than for their own creative output" (Billboard). Here, the band "achieves a cryptic contemplative mood" by showing "a knack for combining" the "acquired tastes" of "feedback, ambient noise, and detuned guitars": "[T]he cacophonous instrumental passages seem perpetually on the verge of building into songs, and the choruses sound as if they're about to disintegrate" (Kelefa Sanneh, the New York Times). The result? A "reverie of rock geologies from jam to glam and beyond. Nostalgic, but also soul-kissing the future" (Will Hermes, Entertainment Weekly). (Visit the band's Web site. Buy.)— A.B.

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Born To Reign, by Will Smith (Sony). The multimedia phenomenon that is Will Smith returns with more "Radio Disney-friendly rap" (Chris Willman, Entertainment Weekly) timed to coincide with the release of Men in Black II. Smith's insistence on profanity-free lyrics and refusal to pose as a thug actually earn praise from some critics. "The worst thing in the world would be for him to sell out at this late date for any dubious street cred," writes Steve Jones of USA Today. Instead, he sticks with the "tried-and-true formula" of "bubble-gum rap songs even your church-going grandmother can enjoy" (Renee Graham, the Boston Globe). (Read about the current activities of former Smith partner DJ Jazzy Jeff, who is, surprisingly, not washed up.)— B.M.L.

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Heathen Chemistry, by Oasis (Sony). Critics say Oasis sticks to the sounds that made them famous on this, their fifth album. There are "bluesy rockers," "crossover stabs," and a "requisite anthem" (Billboard) called "Little by Little," which some reviewers praise but others call "the kind of earnest 'Wind Beneath My Wings' crap even Bryan Adams would know to edit" (Tom Moon, Rolling Stone). As to how this record compares to their universally lauded first two albums and their two universally panned follow-ups, the jury is still out. The New York Daily News' Jim Farber calls Heathen Chemistry the band's "best album since the second one," while Time Out's Chris Salmon says it's "tragically average pub-rock-by-numbers." Others, including the London Times' Paul Connolly, take the middle road: It's "brilliant in places, shockingly bad in others." (Click here to play the "Kiss the Gallagher Brothers" game. Buy.)— B.M.L.

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Cry, by Simple Minds (Eagle/EMI). A wishy-washy reception for this new disc from the '80s post-punk duo most famous for the suddenly more-poignant Breakfast Club anthem "Don't You (Forget About Me)." The nostalgia-hungry call it "largely solid" (John D. Luerssen, Billboard) because it "remains rooted in the band's haunting vocals and synthesizer sounds" (Derek Simmonsen, the Washington Times). But most sadly say there's really nothing new here and that "none of Cry is profound": "[N]ew songs such as 'One Step Closer' and the title tune successfully reclaim the band's earlier mode, although there sometimes seems to be even less beneath the music's luxuriant veneer than was there two decades ago" (Mark Jenkins, the Washington Post). (Check out the band's new Web site.)— 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.

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