Highlights from the week in criticism.

Highlights from the week in criticism.

Highlights from the week in criticism.

Highlights from the week in criticism.
April 4 2003 2:00 PM

Easy Targets

A sniper tries to pick off Colin Farrell in Phone Booth; critics take aim at Vin Diesel in A Man Apart.

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A Man Apart (New Line). This action film's "pervasive torpor" leaves critics with little to do but toss darts into the lumpy golem of Vin Diesel. Entertainment Weekly's Scott Brown hurls this one: "Armed with muddy enunciation and a dull glare that bespeaks badass catalepsy, he doesn't seem capable of more than two levels: sulk and smash." In the Onion, Nathan Rabin is incrementally more sympathetic, lamenting that Diesel's once-appealing "Robert Mitchum in Lou Ferrigno's body" persona has congealed; he's now "just another action figure." And in the Los Angeles Times, Kenneth Turan goofs on political underpinnings for this no-brainer: "The drug lord Memo is clearly Saddam, partner Demetrius has all the Tony Blair moves, while Diesel's Vetter insists, like the president, that he has to answer to a higher authority than conventional law in his quest to do what's right." (Buy tickets to A Man Apart.)

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Phone Booth (20th Century Fox). Critics moan that this "simple, irresistible high-concept hook" (sniper traps publicist in phone booth!) is squandered by director Joel Schumacher. "It's an energetic stunt of a movie, and it wants to make us sweat like it's 1974," writes EW's Owen Gleiberman, but despite the "coiled skill" of Colin Farrell "the character remains a frantic, one-note hustler who gets no more interesting to watch as he unravels." The Los Angeles Times' Manohla Dargis calls Phone Booth a pumped-up B-movie that "dive-bombs" after a jazzy first half. The New York Times' Stephen Holden deems it "bogus on every level, right down to its half-hearted trick ending." But the Village Voice's J. Hoberman kinda-sorta loves it: The movie's a "deeply and wonderfully anachronistic" experience "best appreciated as hilarious pulp metaphor." (Buy tickets to Phone Booth.)

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Elephant, The White Stripes (V2/BMG). Most critics shiver with excitement: "The one downside of great albums is that they can only be heard for the first time once," raves Keith Phipps in the Onion, comparing Elephant to Let It Bleed and 1999. In Rolling Stone, David Fricke proclaims it "a work of pulverizing perfection." (His comparisons: "the swagger and snort of Led Zeppelin's Physical Graffiti and Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols.") NME's John Mulvey applauds the album's "eloquence, barbarism, tenderness and sweat-drenched vitality." But those buzz-killers at Pitchfork.com get their jabs in too: "White struggles to tenuously weld a growing amalgam of contradictions and genre experiments held with a veneer of schtick, persona, and Fonzie cool, while Meg's pancake-handed drumming and the two-piece format drips solvent over the whole experiment." (Buy Elephant.)

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What I Loved, by Siri Hustvedt (Henry Holt). Newsday's Clare Dederer goes happily bananas over the pleasures of Hustvedt's prose: "Those of us who read new fiction dream of finding such a book." In the New York Times, Janet Burroway praises this art-world novel as "a rare thing, a page turner written at full intellectual stretch, serious but witty, large-minded and morally engaged." A few have mathematical caveats: The Seattle Times' Misha Berson prefers the final 50 percent of the book; Michiko Kakutani just the opposite (she calls the second half a "hokey thriller"). The London Observer's Geraldine Bedell is even more specific: She initially loathed the first third, but ended up loving the whole damn thing. And in the New York Observer, Joe Hagan dishes on the book's autobiographical underpinnings. (Buy What I Loved.)

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Regarding the Pain of Others, by Susan Sontag (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). Though Sontag's recent books may have jumped the shark, rife with "solemn preening," this reconsideration of her ideas on photography jumps back, Scott McLemee writes in Newsday. The new work marks "a genuine return to the source of the energy driving Sontag's critical prose from the 1960s and '70s." In the New York Times, John Leonard adores the book's timely analysis of war photography, and his riff/review is half intellectual defense, half mash note: "She knows lots of things the rest of us only wish we did," he purrs. Elsewhere in the Times, his colleague Ms. Kakutani is less forgiving when it comes to Sontag's second thoughts: "It seems paradoxical that so many of the views she now disputes as conventional wisdom among the intelligentsia are views informed or shaped by her earlier writings." (Buy Regarding the Pain of Others.)

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Believer. The new McSweeney's-published magazine the Believer is out, complete with obdurately up-with-people philosophy. (The working title was The Optimist.) According to the Web site, the magazine's mission statement includes the following premises: "We will focus on writers and books we like," and "We will give people and books the benefit of the doubt." The Web site also notes that, "Books are inherently good … as are people marching to express a political opinion. In this magazine, we will never forget the concept of the Inherent Good." The first issue features a clarifying rant by editor Heidi Julavits, who envisions the magazine as an alternative to "The Snarky, Dumbed-Down World of Book Reviewing."

Julavits details her philosophy to Renee Tawa in the Los Angeles Times: " 'The fact that books are treated as if they all exist in a vacuum accentuates the loneliness of the experience and the rarefied quality of that experience, and, really, when you're reading a book you should feel like you're just getting zinged in all these different directions and connected with other writers who have influenced the writer of the book you're reading. … I feel that books can provide this real sense of community if you're aware of the community you're tapping into by reading a book.' Julavits laughed, acknowledging that her aim 'sounds like the corniest thing ever.' "