The Matrix Reloaded(Warner Bros.). This "insanely pretentious and dazzling cyberaction sequel" (Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly) wins more shrugs than Keanu-esque whoas—with critics complaining that "the thrill isn't gone from the sequel, but the surprise is, and it hurts more than you'd think." Even thumbs-down reviews praise the flick's more kick-ass elements: "(Some of) the fights: still cool ... (Some of) the shoot-outs: still unbelievable ... (Some of) the chases: still awesome ... (Every last pulsating inch, cell, fiber and cuticle of) Monica Bellucci: Well, let me say two words about Monica Bellucci—Monica Bellucci!" salivates the Washington Post's Stephen Hunter. But for the Chicago Tribune's Mark Caro, such compensations aren't nearly enough: "Action scenes can't be heart-stopping if the story hasn't gotten your ticker going to begin with." (Read David Edelstein's hard-core pan in Slate.) (Buy tickets to The Matrix Reloaded.)
Down With Love (Fox). This "succulent piece of postmodern fluff" (EW's King of Descriptives Owen Gleiberman again!) wins mild-to-scalding notices. The New York Post's Megan Lehmann calls it "pretty but smug"; the Chicago Tribune's Michael Wilmington, "more fizzle than sizzle"; Rolling Stone's Peter Travers, "pink, sticky and indigestible." The Los Angeles Times'Manohla Dargis pans not just the film but its precursor, Pillow Talk, which she terms "deeply corny, airless as a tomb and rarely as funny as you likely remember." And the New York Times' A.O. Scott laments that "in spite of all the manic high jinks, the laughter here arises not from confusion and hysteria, but from complacency, which is not as funny." (Buy tickets to Down With Love.)
Movie Critics. The Seattle Weekly's Tim Appelo profiles right-wing film critic Michael Medved—a smash in radio and publishing but a "shadowy presence" in his earthy-crunchy town. Medved reveals paranoia aplenty, not to mention nostalgia for the good old days. "Why is the critical fraternity so liberal now? It didn't used to be," sighs Medved. "There used to be very conservative critics like the late Bosley Crowther, and there used to be operations like the Legion of Decency, and they had a Protestant film office, and they put out reviews from a specifically moralistic point of view."
Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday). Impressed critics praise the "majestic darkness" of Atwood's bio-dystopia—adding kudos for SARS timeliness. "Atwood's prescience is unsettling," writes the St. Petersburg Times' Colette Bancroft, praising the novel's "invention and mordant wit, none of which slows down its headlong pace." For The New Yorker's Lorrie Moore, the mood proceeds "from terrifying grimness, through lonely mournfulness, until, midway, a morbid silliness begins sporadically to assert itself, like someone, exhausted by bad news, hysterically succumbing to giggles at a funeral." And in the San Francisco Chronicle, David Kipen writes that "what saves Atwood's nightmare vision from didacticism is her gift for the arresting detail, the little rockslides that augur the avalanche." ( Oryx and Crake.)
The Fabulist, by Stephen Glass (Simon & Schuster). "Glass might have applied his talents to the development of the best kind of fiction, which uses invention to make the actual world more meaningful," writes the Cleveland Plain Dealer's Karen Sandstrom. "Instead, he committed the American cliché of aggrandizing his mistakes by putting them up for sale." She's not alone in pre-panning the New Republic flim-flammer's memoirish novel. Ex-colleague Leon Wieseltier bitterly reviews Glass himself ("a worm") and calls the book "contrition as a career move." One reviewer who did read the book—the Washington Post's Chris Lehmann—finds "a thoroughgoing, unearned contempt for the numberless people [Glass] plays for suckers—not merely editors and colleagues, but readers, journalistic subjects and the bit players who populate the novel's social background. Parodist Neal Pollack offers his own bratty roman à clef: " 'Yes, I lied!', I said. 'I lied and lied! But you don't know what kind of stress I was under! Here I am, 20 years old, and my career is not moving forward! I don't want to disappoint my own unrealistic expectations of myself!' " Meanwhile, on Amazon.com, puckish souls recommend books to purchase "in addition to" or "instead of"The Fabulist—suggesting Atonement, The Elements of Journalism,and You Can Conquer Insecurity. ( The Fabulist.)
Bad Reviews. In the Guardian, Stephanie Merritt casts a baleful eye on the recent snark wars: "You have to wonder if these current jeremiads are simply the cries of writers who couldn't take a bad review dressed up as a concern for the direction of literary culture." Her conclusion is that "razor criticism" may cause pain to authors, "but—when executed with intelligence—carries a frisson for readers that fulsome praise does not. Perhaps authors just need to toughen up and realise that books which divide critics and excite debate generally have a longer shelf life, and that no writer was ever prompted to improve by reviews full of bland pleasantries."