Highlights from the week in criticism.

Highlights from the week in criticism.

Highlights from the week in criticism.

Highlights from the week in criticism.
Feb. 25 2003 1:22 PM

Arachnophilia!

Ralph Fiennes snares raves with a bleak turn in Spider.

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Spider (Sony Pictures Classics). This "brilliantly realized but bone-chillingly bleak" portrait of a schizophrenic thrills critics with its "uncanny ability to operate both inside and outside its protagonist's knotted consciousness." A few find Ralph Fiennes' performance a mite gimmicky: In New York magazine, Peter Rainer suggests that "by delineating so exactly the glowers and tics of this nowhere man, Fiennes turns him into an artful case history rather than a full-drawn character." But the vast majority kvell along with Entertainment Weekly's Lisa Schwarzbaum, who calls the performance a bold example of "capital-A, I-paint-with-my-toes Acting." (Read David Edelstein's review of Spider for Slate.) (Buy tickets to Spider.)

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Cradle 2 the Grave (Warner Bros.). The Jet Li/DMX action flick grieves most critics; some respond with anger, some just accept it. In the Chicago Tribune, Robert K. Elder rails that the movie "makes most video game plots look like Moby Dick." In the Los Angeles Times, Manohla Dargis is enraged by racist undercurrents and hateful jokes. But the New York Times' Stephen Holden simply sighs in despair that the film has the "flailing momentum of a defective action toy run amok," and Entertainment Weekly's Scott Brown sorta-kinda praises it as "forthrightly rote and businesslike." Meanwhile, L.A. Weekly's John Patterson enthusiastically if inaccurately characterizes it as "relentless, infantile and impossible to dislike." (Buy tickets to Cradle 2 the Grave.)

Chef Bernard Loiseau

Food Critics. When French chef Bernard Loiseau shot himself Monday, colleagues blamed GaultMillau, the culinary guide that had plucked a star from the chef's rating. "Bravo, GaultMillau, you have won," rails French chef Paul Bocuse in Le Parisien. Comparing critics to court eunuchs, Bocuse provides this unsettling glimpse into the emotional lives of chefs: "I felt that pressure at age 40, at age 50, at age 60, at age 70. Now at 80, I'm better able to deal with it." An article in the Telegraph points out that Loiseau's suicide has a precursor: In 1966, chef Alain Zick shot himself upon learning that his Paris restaurant had lost a Michelin star.

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In the Guardian Marco Pierre White never accuses reviewers of killing Loiseau, but he does blame them for his own retirement: "In the end I gave back my three stars and gave up cooking. It just struck me one day that I was being judged by people with less knowledge than myself of how to cook—so what was the value of their good opinion?"

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Unread Books. "Yo, Beverly. Next time, read the damned book," snarked the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette's Gene Lyons a month back, upon discovering Beverly Lowry's error-packed review of Susan McDougal's memoir in the New York Times. (The Times posted a correction.) Putting the scandal in context, the Evening Standard's David Sexton dishes on the evil secrets of critics who skim: "They take issue only with specific sections of the work. They never make sweeping negative assertions. … They deliver wellturned essays about subjects they already know about (Napoleon, say, or the national health) and then add just a few kind words about the publication in hand ('as X says, in this lively account'). Most particularly, they do not write scathing condemnations, for authors are more inclined to forgive errors when they come floating in a warm bath of praise than when they come coated in vitriol."

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Drop City, by T.C. Boyle (Viking). "A rebuke of hippie culture that would make Abbie Hoffman put on a tie and write a humble apology on Crane's stationery," crows the Christian Science Monitor's Ron Charles, glad that this '70s novel puts Boyle's trademark wordplay to serious aims. Even mixed reviews call it a worthwhile experiment. The tale is "not a satire, though it's often very funny; not a mere exercise in nostalgia, though every detail shines," praises the Los Angeles Times' Michael Harris. One naysayer backhands the book for "obvious stereotypes and symbolism," but in the New York Times, Dwight Garner admires "how soulful Drop City frequently is, and how much human complexity Boyle manages to smuggle in under the cover of his jittery, get-this-man-a-decaf prose." (Drop City.)

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The Spooky Art: Some Thoughts on Writing, by Norman Mailer (Random House). Critics are bemused and flummoxed by this incoherent "grab bag of oddments"—a non-chronological anthology that ranges "from hubris to polemic and back again," with a few moments of wisdom along the way. The collection "shows Mailer's brave willingness to take on demanding forms and daunting issues, but also hints at what went wrong in so many of his works," notes the Boston Globe's Shaun O'Connell. In the Houston Chronicle, Logan Browning wonders why the author has published "a work that invites us to dismiss him as a literary Wizard of Oz with no real powers or substance remaining." And the New York Times' James Campbell expresses frustration with the book's mashing together of contradictory opinions from decades apart—but then again, he shrugs, "what does a pig know about its bacon, after all?" ( The Spooky Art.)