Madonna. Like many music critics, Saddam Hussein appears to be a fickle, fickle man, easily swayed by ego-boosting freebies. "For 10 years, the ruling Baath Party banned mention of Madonna, whose song 'Like a Virgin' was seen as an admission of a woman's disgrace," reports the New York Daily News. "But this week, the ruling party's newspaper, Al Thawra, hailed the singer for her single 'American Life' and its video, in which she 'shows her opposition to an attack on Iraq.' Though Saddam has long preferred ABBA, his party organ is now saluting the Evita star, who 'has always stood out for her interpretations.' "
Tears of the Sun (Columbia). This "broad, shallow fantasy of American intervention and omnipotence" inspires critics to deconstruct war pics. The Bruce Willis film "continues a disturbing trend of action movies that not only exploit war for visceral thrills, but also try to rewrite history in the process," complains the Onion's Scott Tobias. Africans are portrayed as only "snarling villains and wide-eyed, childlike innocents," observes the New York Times' A.O. Scott. The Washington Post's Stephen Hunter dissents, praising the film's "quiet, confident, almost documentary feel." Several reviewers note parallels to the war effort: The Los Angeles Times' Kenneth Turan points out that the movie unintentionally offers "a propaganda fantasy of how the administration thinks the impending invasion of Iraq is going to go." (Read David Edelstein's review of Tears of the Sun for Slate.) (Buy tickets to Tears of the Sun.)
Laurel Canyon (Sony Picture Classics). Mixed reviews greet a California indie that's "more a vibe than a movie," but the responses to Frances McDormand's star performance are downright pornographic. The "sexy, worldly-wise McDormand … makes Jane ripe, real, and irresistible," sighs Entertainment Weekly's Lisa Schwarzbaum. McDormand's rocker chick portrayal "creates a terrific gravitational pull," effuses the Los Angeles Times' Manohla Dargis, while the New York Times' Stephen Holden observes that the actress emits "the sparks of a sultry-eyed screen siren." And someone should probably hose down The New Yorker's Anthony Lane: "The delight that dawned on her face as the buttons were slowly popped on her denim shirt looked dangerously close to unfeigned," he purrs. (Buy tickets to Laurel Canyon.)
Bringing Down the House (Touchstone). Weary critics rotely pan this "bland, tepid throwback," praising Queen Latifah's performance as a "shrewd, jiggier-than-thou sistah," and well aware that their censure will have zero effect on the box office. The preview audience's enthusiasm suggests that the film's creators will be "chuckling all the way to the bank," shrugs the Christian Science Monitor's David Sterritt. The Onion's Keith Phipps dryly suggests that the film's black-chick-gets-white-guy-to-loosen-up plot could "pass as the most enlightened portrayal of race relations of the 19th century." But reviewers are reluctant to expend too much analytical effort on the racial politics of this slapstick rumpus: "There's that scrutiny muscle getting all tight again," jokes the Washington Post's Desson Howe, who acknowledges that the movie does after all provide the "crazy-couple casting of two watchable entertainers." (Buy tickets to Bringing Down the House.)
Spoilers. In a column titled "I, Blabbermouth," the Seattle-Post Intelligencer's TV critic Melanie McFarland humbly apologizes for giving away Six Feet Under plot points. Meanwhile, in the ask-the-critic column, Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight selects Otto Preminger's 1944 noir classic Laura as his favorite art film—exhibiting admirable "spoiler" etiquette as he explains why. "It demonstrates why art critics are held in such low regard," he writes. "(WARNING: stop reading here if you haven't seen it and don't want the ending revealed.) The murderer of the ravishing Laura (Gene Tierney) turns out to be critic Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb). We should have guessed that at the beginning, because everybody knows that critics kill beauty."
Being America: Liberty, Commerce, and Violence in an American World, by Jedediah Purdy (Alfred A. Knopf). The hayseed Tocqueville is back, and once again he's attracted high praise and a bit of highly concentrated venom. In the Los Angeles Times, Bernadette Murphy calls this "an incisive and timely book that anyone concerned with the looming war with Iraq should read."Foreign Affairs' Walter Russell Mead dismisses the book's weaknesses as "sunspots on the sun," raving that Purdy possesses "a judicious political intelligence and a powerful analytical mind." Although the New York Observer's Stephen Metcalf denounces Purdy—"same deadweight moralizing, same chloroform prose"—others find the ideas flat but the reporting good and deem Purdy a cute l'il intellectual puppy despite it all. In the San Jose Mercury News, Charles Matthews muses, "Though Purdy's youthfulness undermines his book, betraying him into pomposity, it also gives it an alertness, a hopefulness that makes it almost endearing." (For anyone who thinks Purdy pans deter sales, there's this guy, who bought the author's latest because his first book got so royally creamed: "Anyone who can work the poseurs at Salon.com into such a frothing lather has got to be a Force for Good.") (Buy Being America.)
The Usual Rules, by Joyce Maynard (St. Martin's Press). Frequent critical target Maynard attracts surprisingly universal praise for her 9/11 novel: "The subject offered high potential for awfulness, but this is wonderful, a genuine, anguished, vibrant novel about a girl whose mother died in the collapse of the World Trade Center," thrills Chris Kridler in the Baltimore Sun. Reviewers admire "realistic and heartfelt domestic moments" (Karen Karbo, the New York Times) and single out Maynard's believable main character for praise. "Her children react as children do, not like adults trying to think like kids," writes Susan Dooley in the Washington Post. USA Today's Kathy Balog compares Maynard to Judy Blume and calls the author's larger vision "authentically hopeful." ( The Usual Rules.)
Six Feet Under (HBO). Anticipatory kudos everywhere for this "darkly drawn sliver of Americana."Newsday's Noel Holston chides that "if fans aren't dumbstruck and tearful 10 minutes into it, they should probably have someone check their pulses" and calls the series a "metaphysical soap opera, as poetic and realistic as the plays of William Inge or Arthur Miller." The Seattle Post-Intelligencer's Melanie McFarland calls it "a nourishing indulgence as opposed to the guilty pleasure usually associated with soaps." And in the New York Times, Alessandra Stanley rather oddly argues that what the show is really good at is dealing with social status, positing that the Fisher family represents the "neuroses and preoccupations of a faded upper class." (Read Slate's Virginia Heffernan's take here.)