Highlights from the week in criticism.

Highlights from the week in criticism.

Highlights from the week in criticism.

Highlights from the week in criticism.
June 20 2003 4:50 PM

Order The Phoenix

In the fifth installment, Harry has an attitude.

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Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (Scholastic). J.K. Rowling serves up "one prickly, ticked-off teenager" in this long-awaited fifth installment, which hits stores at 12:01 a.m. Saturday. The Atlanta Constitution's Phil Kloer reports that the adolescent Harry is "seething with resentment and occasionally wallowing in self-pity, prone to sarcasm and outbursts even against those he loves," which makes him sound like nearly everyone I know. "Nothing is simple anymore, not even Harry's relationships with the people he is closest to," explains Deepti Hajela of the AP."That's where Rowling really extends this series past the genre of children's stories." Dierdre Donahue in USA Today also commends the British impresario for avoiding "the qualities that marred the fourth book," particularly the "frankly grisly scenes that were so disturbing in Goblet of Fire." Parents: You have exactly 870 "deeply satisfying" pages until your kids start complaining again. ( Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.)

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The Hulk (Universal). Looking to kablam art-house audiences and teenage boys alike, director Ang Lee mixes a little CGI, some "Willie-Boy Shakespeare," a handful of Oedipal undertones, a pinch of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, and "a dash of leftover Joseph Conrad" and provides the "not-so-jolly Green Giant" with "a personal history that would make Oprah and Sophocles weep." After sitting through the "Jungian and Hegelian hoo-ha" of The Matrix: Reloaded, kerpows New York's Peter Rainer, "it's almost endearing to watch a movie so simplistically Freudian." "Without sacrificing the usual roller-coaster thrills,"vaa-rooms the Chicago Tribune's Michael Wilmington, the movie "looks and 'reads' like a comic book." But this "Shrek-on-protein-shakes-and-creatine" leaves some critics just kerplunked. "Incredibly long, incredibly tedious, incredibly turgid," choom ka-chooms A.O. Scott, who bemoans the filmmakers' knack for both taking "the material too seriously and condescending to it." And critics dismiss the Australian actor Eric Bana, who plays the "seething Harryhausen gargantua," as "wooden," "mopey and indisctinct," "unrelentingly dull." Let's hope, for his sake, he's already signed on for the sequel. (Read David Edestein's review in Slate.) (Buy tickets to The Hulk.)

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Alex and Emma (Warner Bros.). For the second week in a row, the Christian Science Monitor's David Sterritt is the odd man out, recommending what others find to be a "head-poundingly boring" "amateur theater production" of a movie about a writer (Luke Wilson) and his stenographer (Kate Hudson), which Summary Judgment wishes he hadn't spent last Monday evening watching. Sterritt insists Rob Reiner's new film, loosely based on a Dostoevsky story, is "diverting fun" if not "nearly as clever" as the director's Misery, a "very different look at a male writer and his female companion." But other critics just yammer about how hard it is to find a watchable romantic comedy. Elvis Mitchell pines for "the halcyon time" of How To Lose a Guy in 10 Days before he compares Hudson, the star of both films, to—would someone unpack this for me please?—a "peanut butter cookie that will eventually crumble as she's dunked into a steaming cup of love." (Buy tickets to Alex and Emma.)

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Sex and the City(HBO). Though Salon wails that we still haven't seen Sarah Jessica Parker's breasts, virtually no reviewer can resist the Jimmy Choo-heeled charms of a sixth and final season. "I watched both episodes already. … Anybody want to go to the movies with me?" pleads the New York Post's Linda Stasi. If the groan-worthy puns—"Just like that, their mutual fun turned into mutual funds"—make the Chicago Sun-Times' Phil Rosenthal throw his "hands in the air and scream," he admits the show "beats the hell out of" reality television. And the Boston Globe even applauds the "flinchingly bad wordplay" as "a lovable trademark." "The gayest show on television," proclaims Metro Weekly without quite defining why, though Alessandra Stanley suggests that Samantha "has all the traits of a promiscuous gay man," a duality that "helps keep the show intriguing." An article in Sunday's New York Times examines the show's parallels with The Golden Girls (i.e., Samantha equals Blanche, Charlotte becomes Rose): "Growing old without a man, a persistent fear on Sex and the City, is a reality on The Golden Girls."

The Bowl Cut.The spherical hairdo has had a rough week. "King of the bowl cut" Josh Hartnett wears the style "and an oddly blank expression" in his new movie Hollywood Homicide, but the appeal is questionable: "He looks goofy rather than sexy," decides Soren Andersen in the Tacoma, Wash., News Tribune. Before taking on the Jim Carrey role in Dumb and Dumberer, Eric Christian Olsen, a surfer deemed "too good looking," was asked to cut his hair dome-style; it made him "look like a geek" and damaged his love life. And Ang Lee, director of The Hulk, dispatched the green behemoth's original look in favor of a more modern, feathered cut. As usual, children and female rock stars get off easier. Harry Altman, the "spastic, breathless chatterbox" featured in the documentary Spellbound sports "a perfect bowl of hair and an amazing seal-bark laugh." And the Icelandic chanteuse Björk "astonished" the New York Times' Kelefa Sanneh and tens of thousands of ardent fans at the Sónar music festival in Barcelona where she premiered "her fetching new bowl cut."

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The Bug, by Ellen Ullman (Doubleday). The Washington Post's David Futrelle admits that this book "sparkles intermittently" with "sharp insight and eloquent prose" but he finds the plot—about a computer bug that wreaks havoc on a group of programmers—melodramatic and the characters unconvincing. The Village Voice's Nick Mamatas sighs that Ullman "grafts a suspense novel with a novel of ideas"—whatever that is—"with unfortunately buggy results." One glitch, he notes, is the no-big-deal factor: "Software releases are crawling with bugs." But a few critics peg Ullman's "techno-novel" as an instant classic. In the San Francisco Chronicle, Jules Siegel is thrilled that Ullman—like Kafka—"writes so vividly and clearly about states of paranoid anxiety." And in the New York Times, Benjamin Anastas praises the author as a "skeptic reporting from inside the walls"; Ullman is a former software engineer and "her insight into the every day consequences of the technology can at times make your hair stand on end." The technophiles at Slashdot ("News for Nerds") interpret Anastas' "slightly breathless but overdue enthusiastic review" as a nod to geeks everywhere. ( The Bug.)

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The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini (Riverhead). The novel—reportedly the first written in English by an Afghan—deftly sketches "an Afghanistan most Americans have never seen," raves Dianne Struzzi in the Hartford Courant. But the Denver Post's Ron Franscell hastens to assure readers that "this isn't a 'foreign' book": Unfamiliar words and customs are lucidly described for American readers, and "unlike Boris Pasternak's Dr. Zhivago, Hosseini's narrative resonates with familiar rhythms and accessible ideas." Other reviewers find this chronicle of a friendship between a poor man and a wealthy one far too familiar and accessible. The Chicago Tribune's Vanessa Gezari pans the book's "utilitarian prose style," "journalistic reliance on cliché and formula," and "Hollywood ending" while the San Francisco Chronicle's David Kipen chides Hosseini for not fully exploiting the titular metaphor, which paints Afghanistan as a country "jerked around like a kite." Kipen backhandedly concludes: "It's a small failing, symptomatic of this middlebrow but proficient, timely novel from an undeniably talented new San Francisco writer." ( The Kite Runner.)

Marshall Heyman is an editor and writer living in New York.