Highlights from the week in criticism.

Highlights from the week in criticism.

Highlights from the week in criticism.

Highlights from the week in criticism.
Dec. 20 2002 4:12 PM

Towers of Fights

The response to the new Ground Zero plans begins.

WTC plan

WTC Plans. New York Times architecture critic Herbert Muschamp—our leader?—responds to the newest architectural proposals with a veritable meta-St. Crispin's Day speech: "In our hype-drenched era, a critic will have to risk raising cynical eyebrows with superlatives adequate to the occasion. Let them rise. Let them arch into furious knots. The architects have risen to the occasion. So should we." (Muschamp's lofty rhetoric earlier catalyzed a snarky parody by architect Michael Beirut, titled " Just As I Suspected, These Plans Suck.")

In the Washington Post, Benjamin Forgey likes Daniel Libeskind's spires and writes, "If the skyscraper was given up for dead by many observers after the demise of the twin towers, then it was reborn in this contest, and in some cases as a thing of great, innovative beauty."

On Plastic.com, non-architects also have love for the Libeskind (" the light wedge is pretty wild") and disdain for the Richard Meier ("reminds me of a couple of giant Triscuits"). One poster does find a clever use for Meier's tick-tack-toe design: "All they need to do is add an ampersand, an 'at sign', and a couple of asterisks and it'll look like the Manhattan skyline is  cartoon swearing at the terrorists." Meanwhile, on Archinect (a discussion site for architects), cynical eyebrows arch into furious knots: " nothing screams out brilliance or even elegance," sniffs "Javier."

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The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers  (New Line). The New York Times' Elvis Mitchell's breathy take is all "gripping, intense" and "purity of heart" and "never has a film so strongly been a product of a director's respect for its source." Other critics are similarly fan-boyish, touting "the eyepopping siege of Helms Deep" and the fabulous CGI-created Gollum, a "critter-cum-satyr." But whereas last year, lavish praise for the first installment was used to bludgeon Harry Potter, this round, some caveats slip through: In the New York Post, Jonathan Foreman calls the film " earnest almost to the point of hilarity" while Entertainment Weekly's Owen Gleiberman is bugged by the same "purity of heart" in the characters that so entranced his colleague Mr. Mitchell (though Gleiberman does grudgingly admire the flick's " cosmic Manichean zip"). (Buy tickets for The Two Towers.)

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Gangs of New York (Miramax). A " lavish, wildly ambitious epic" (David Ansen, Newsweek); a " brutal, flawed and indelible epic" (A.O. Scott, the New York Times); a " magisterial, scrambled historical epic" (Lisa Schwarzbaum, Entertainment Weekly). Reviewers also experiment with varying ways to call the film "near-great"—"I'm stuck with calling it only (only!) intermittently extraordinary," writes Schwarzbaum, while USA Today's Mike Clark muses that while it "has too many flaws to be great, it has as much greatness in it as any movie this year." But there are also significant demurrals, including critics who rage at historical distortions—and the Los Angeles Times'Kenneth Turan, who calls Scorsese's long-gestating baby " a heavy-footed golem of a motion picture, hard to ignore as it throws its weight around but fatally lacking in anything resembling soul." (Buy tickets for Gangs of New York.)

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Two Weeks Notice (Warner Bros.). "A romantic comedy so vague and sadly undernourished that it makes one of Nora Ephron's low-cal strawberry sodas seem as tempting as a Philip Barry feast!" writes the New York Times' Stephen Holden. (I looked it up; Barry wrote The Philadelphia Story.) Variety's David Rooney also calls the Sandra Bullock lawyers-in-love flick "undernourished," comparing it unfavorably to, of all things, Miss Congeniality. But in the Chicago Sun-Times, Roger Ebert takes the man-of-the-people approach, flipping these culinary metaphors upside down to praise the predictable romantic comedy as "the comfort food of the movies. There are nights when you don't feel like a chef who thinks he's more important than the food."

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Portrait of a Killer: Jack The Ripper, Case Closed, by Patricia Cornwell (G.P. Putnam's Sons). Famously embittered reviewee Caleb Carr spends 2,000 words merrily shredding Patricia Cornwell's thesis to bloody bits, ending with a stern demand that she "apologize for this exercise in calumny" (the New York Times). A month ago Slate's David Cohen found Cornwell's evidence against her suspect, painter Walter Richard Sickart, so sloppy he suggested she follow up by nailing Andy Warhol for JFK's death. Amateur and pro-am Ripperologists alike concur. The Washington Post's John Greenya is apparently the sole exception: He calls the book "a bravura performance," adding gamely, "I have to say she convinced me at least that she'd gotten her man." (Buy Portrait of a Killer.)

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That Old Ace in the Hole, by Annie Proulx (Scribner). This " big rattlebag of a book" evokes faint praise for its earnest politics, but thumbs down for a bleh central character and what the New York Times' Laura Miller dryly terms " a wide, dull stretch of potted history and exposition on topics like the Ogallala aquifer, pivot irrigators and the principal crops of the region." Many critics perform the old " liked your early work!" knife-twist—although the latest does have a few protective outliers, among them Proulx's stoutly loyal (and openly biased) drinking buddy Joel Conarroe in the New York Observer. ( That Old Ace in the Hole.)

State Department Anthology of American Writers (U.S. State Department). The government solicits essays on American values from Michael Chabon, Billy Collins, and 13 others—and the collection is banned stateside under the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948, which forbids the "domestic dissemination" of U.S. propaganda. In the Guardian, Ian Buruma "can't shake the feeling that this is not what serious writers ought to be doing." The debate continues on Mobylives, where Sven Birkerts (a contributor to the anthology) argues that far from jingoism, the writing is "an exploration meant to counter the current atmosphere of us/them polarization." It doesn't seem to be working: Joe Barbato, a contributing editor at Publishers Weekly, snarks back, "Will you please tell me how to turn this ringing bullshit detector off?"

Modern Art Museum of Forth Worth

Modern Art Museum of Forth Worth, Texas, designed by Tadeo Ando. "An extraordinary space, at once tranquil and exhilarating," cheers Paul Goldberger in The New Yorker. The Japanese architect's structure "is a carefully calibrated machine that sensitizes us to an increasingly intimate sequence of experiences" kvells the Los Angeles Times' Nicolai Ouroussoff, who labels the building "architecture for art's sake, without condescension." Universal raves are studded with comments that should thrill the Texas tourism board: In the Washington Post, Benjamin Forgey calls the museum " reason enough to make a pilgrimage to this midsize Texas city."

New York TimesWatch. "I have never gotten a daily review in the Times—not that I am bitter," writes Anne Lamott in Salon. "Nope, nope, nothing could be further from the truth. It's just that I secretly believe that if Michiko Kakutani likes your work, it means you are a real writer, and you will be happy and and wealthy and stable forever. The one little problem with Michiko, though, is that if she doesn't like your book, she will kill you— cut your head off with a surgical knife, and play hacky-sack with it until she grows bored. Then, maybe in the last paragraph, she'll pour acid on it."

One New York Times architecture critic is not enough, pleads the Architectural Record's Robert Ivy: "[R]ather than [Herbert Muschamp's] single gaze, architectural criticism in this national newspaper should more resemble the multidimensional view of the Hindu goddess Kali, a three-eyed deity simultaneously wielding the heads of her victims and the blessings of continual rebirth in her multiple hands."