Highlights from the week in criticism.

Highlights from the week in criticism.

Highlights from the week in criticism.

Highlights from the week in criticism.
July 15 2003 5:35 PM

Is There More to Moore?

How To Deal suggests that the pop star might know how to act.

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How To Deal (New Line). "Like a Douglas Sirk after-school special," this Mandy Moore vehicle throws a "full shopping list of life's complications" into the pop star's grocery cart: "Parental divorce, Dad's marriage to a bimbo, Sis's fussy wedding, a school friend's sudden death, [her] best pal's pregnancy," and "a weed-smoking grandma." It all adds up to something "a little too tidy for a film exploring how messy life can be." Director Clare Kilner "isn't above the synergistic music-video montages," but the Onion's Scott Tobias still perceives a "surprising intelligence and gravity" bubbling beneath the glossy genre surface; the movie has "an unusual degree of empathy for its adolescent audience." For A.O. Scott, somewhat uneven production values evoke the "sloppy, ungainly, awkward" teenage years, while Moore's "limitations as an actress"—the habitual twitch of the upper lip, the crease between her eyebrows—only make her more appealing. Though some dismiss the singer as "not quite a musician, not yet an actress,"USA Today's Claudia Puig thinks Moore is actually the movie's saving grace. "Given the right material she could really shine." (Buy tickets to How To Deal.)

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Johnny English (Universal). The Chicago Tribune's Robert K. Elder pans Rowan Atkinson's new film; the spy spoof—an "over-farmed" genre in its own right—is "tired, out of date and so abominably blah that you'll fall asleep in your popcorn." But Entertainment Weekly's Lisa Schwarzbaum (who concedes that the movie's "groan-laugh switch" sometimes gets stuck on "groan") and several other unsuspecting critics find themselves cracking up over Atkinson's rubber facial expressions and klutzy pratfalls, which include getting his tie stuck in a sushi bar conveyor belt. "He is like a sketch-comedy troupe rolled into one body," gushes A.O. Scott, who admits the film reduced him "to helpless giddy laughter." "Sure, the movie's corny and rude," surrenders the Washington Post's Michael O'Sullivan, "Okay, so it's sophomoric. You were expecting, maybe, Masterpiece Theatre?" (Buy tickets to Johnny English.)

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Bad Boys II (Sony). Movies produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, the Los Angeles Times' Manohla Dargis suggests, can be as "infuriating" as they are "irresistible and compulsively watchable." This one's no exception: Critics are simultaneously repulsed and entranced by director Michael Bay's "beyond endless" 144-minute sequel to his 1995 hit, which starred Martin Lawrence and Will Smith. L.A. Weekly's Scott Foundas calls the "swaggering, cocksure" scenes of violence (including a minefield death in which "we can see the blown-apart bits of … carcass fly up in the air") "repugnant, yet thrilling." In the Chicago Tribune, Michael Wilmington finds the "nearly psycopathic" movie "entertaining and exciting" but "also sometimes jaw-droppingly awful." Afterward, warns A.O. Scott, you'll feel "sluggish and glutted, groggy and numb" and perhaps, as the Dallas Observer's Luke Y. Thompson notes, cognizant of how much can change in eight years. Real life events afford Smith's and Lawrence's roles a certain irony: "Having Smith play the brash playboy who waves guns around and Lawrence as the responsible family man now feels like a deliberately perverse joke." (Buy tickets to Bad Boys II.)

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The Restaurant(NBC). The series, which chronicles celebrity chef Rocco DiSpirito as he opens an Italian restaurant, "feels closer to reality than most shows given that genre title." The action here is "more organic than manufactured," says Reuters' Ray Richmond, especially as DiSpirito transforms from a "decent, can do optimist" into a "raving Type A lunatic." Still, the show seems carefully plated: Richmond notes that the sponsors—including American Express, Coors, and Mitsubishi—seem to co-star, and Metro Weekly observes that it's odd when a publicist "squeals in delight over landing a segment on The Today Show"; both shows are produced by NBC. The New York Post's Linda Stasi was hoping for "more of an Upstairs/Downstairs edge," but the New York Times' food critic William Grimes confesses he's transfixed: The efforts of the kitchen to please starving customers are "a little like the stirring naval sequences in Ben-Hur when the kettle drums begin to pound, the slaves pick up their oars, and the triremes accelerate to battle speed."

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Kate Remembered, by A. Scott Berg (Putnam). Michiko Kakutani finds this authorized compendium of a 20-year friendship between Berg and the recently deceased Katherine Hepburn difficult to categorize. It's "part biography, part memoir; part hagiography, part pathography; part affectionate tribute by a friend and fan; part namedropping exercise in voyeurism." Though "full of engaging anecdotes," including one about a hilarious dinner with Michael Jackson, Kate is "short on new revelations," explains the Orlando Sentinel's Nancy Pate, and is "basically a quickie post-mortem on a newly dead star." Film critic Richard Schickel is especially skeptical of Berg's "dubious" claim that Hepburn had the "greatest acting career of the twentieth century"; Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, and Irene Dunn showed a "richer range and a subtler vulnerability." "The world wants, perhaps needs, to believe that Katharine Hepburn is a defining 'legend' of independence, cutting bravely, prematurely, intentionally against the grain of her times." The movie industry is always more interested in "bold imagery" over "nuance." (Kate Remembered.)

Queer Eye for the Straight Guy (Bravo). The Los Angeles Times' Samantha Bonar offers understated praise ("I love it! I love it! I love it!") for this new reality series, in which five gay style mavens make over a straight man. The South Florida Sun-Sentinel's Rod Stafford Hagwood thinks the Fab Five may also change viewers for the better, at least when it comes to cocktail conversation: "The bon mots and acid-tongued asides" will be heard at "parties from coast to coast." The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review's Laura Urbani concurs that even the nasty remarks "are said with such flair that it's hard for anyone to be offended." As for the show's stereotypical premise, the stylish stylists "don't seem to mind the gay typecasting." Tom Shales does; he thinks the producers seem more concerned with product placement than "consciousness-raising on behalf of homosexuals." And Salon's Heather Havrilesky worries that Americans, who found black children adorable and clever after Different Strokes, might come to believe that all gay men resemble Will and Grace's Jack: "Is the snarky gay man the wisecracking little black boy of the 2000s?"

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Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith, by Jon Krakauer (Doubleday). This "horrific, gripping picture of Mormonism and its fundamentalist offshoots" focuses on Don and Ron Lafferty, who killed their brother Allen's wife and daughter on orders from God. Newsweek's Malcolm Jones calls it "the creepiest book anyone has written in a long time," and the San Francisco Chronicle's Don Lattin thrills that the true crime tale recalls In Cold Blood"in its depiction of that strange American blend of piety, violence and longing." But because Krakauer describes both the murders and the origins of the church, the Rocky Mountain News'Steve Galpern isn't sure "which part of the book is the dog and which is the tail." And the Wall Street Journal's Naomi Schaefer finds Mormons to be something of "an easy target": She singles out Krakauer's "unfair" tendency to cite the Laffertys' interpretation of Mormonism "as if there is some damning truth hidden in ravings of criminal extremists." (Buy Under the Banner of Heaven.)

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Boogaloo: The Quintessence of American Popular Music, by Arthur Kempton (Pantheon). The Washington Post's Richard Harrington observes that Kempton, in assembling this "literary/academic sampling" of black music, "is not unlike a jazz musician, riffing on familiar melodies while looking to make original statements about great 'Aframerican' music." But his improvisations don't quite come off: The San Francisco Chronicle's James Sullivan thinks Boogaloo"covers a bewildering amount of ground" but is inconsistent, skipping "colossal monuments" like James Brown while emphasizing others who are just "dimestore attractions in comparison." The Boston Globe's Mark Feeney hears a "rhythmic clumsiness" in Kempton's prose while the New York Times' Ben Ratliff finds that his "boa-constrictor sentences" make it tough to decipher "exactly what the author's angle is." Robert Christgau agrees: The "ambitious" book has "no primary research" and "no explicit thesis, either." (Boogaloo.)

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