Highlights from the week in criticism.

Highlights from the week in criticism.

Highlights from the week in criticism.

Highlights from the week in criticism.
Oct. 24 2003 1:01 PM

Rhapsodies in Silver

Impossibly ornate metaphors for Frank Gehry's Disney Hall.

Walt Disney Concert Hall

The Walt Disney Concert Hall. The Los Angeles Philharmonic's new home finally opened this week after 26 years of wrangling and was greeted by a fantasia of metaphor. Talk of such glories as "lilting abstract geometries," "the petals of an exotic flower," and "swoops of stainless-steel sheets like silver sails in a regatta" has become devalued coin where architect Frank Gehry is concerned. But how about "an exploding metal artichoke"? Or " those magic wands in Disney sketching silver arcs in the air"? Or perhaps "Darth Vader might spring to mind"? Or even "the Grand Canyon"? Not surprisingly, the New York Times' champion of metaphorical excess, Herbert Muschamp, tops all comers with visions of "a moon palace" bathed in "the light of the Hollywood dream" that trail off into rapture: "Pumpkin into carriage, cabbage into concert hall, bippidi-bobbidi-boo." (Read Slate's take on the concert hall.)

In the Cut (Screen Gems). "Headless body, topless star": Leave it to the New York Post to sum up this gory erotic thriller, which stars Meg Ryan as an English teacher who may be involved with a serial killer. Hollywood Reporter admires "a fearless, emotionally raw performance," but Rolling Stone's Peter Travers thinks Ryan is "snuffing her natural comic gleam"; too many other people can't resist noting that Ryan's orgasms are "far more realistic" than the one in When Harry Met Sally. But critics save their ire for director Jane Campion, with whom they've grown impatient. They're tired of the New Zealander's style, which is "bogged down in rote perversity, and mannerism more wacky than innovative," according to LA Weekly's Ella Taylor. And they're really tired of her politics: "Campion is still beating her wooden spoon on the back of the pot," snipes Salon's Stephanie Zacharek. "Women dream! Women want! Women's expectations are dashed! she intones." (Buy tickets to In the Cut.)

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Elephant (Fine Line). Critics at Cannes were divided on Gus Van Sant's Palme d'Or-winning depiction of a Columbinesque high-school massacre, which features a non-professional cast. Six months later, they're still divided. "Less staged than unfurled, the narrative is essentially anecdotal," says the Village Voice, and the film's fans find this aimlessness liberating; detractors hate it. The Christian Science Monitor says Van Sant "gives no pat or easy answers. Instead he makes us squirm, worry, and think." And the Los Angeles Times thinks the director's visual style "has the quality of a waking dream, then a nightmare." But New York's Peter Rainer wants answers, complaining that Van Sant "doesn't have any insight into why this all occurred." And LA Weekly worries that the film is too stylized: "The killings seem a precocious art student's crudely shocking pièce de résistance." (Buy tickets to Elephant.)

Scary Movie 3 (Dimension). The latest installment of this spoof series targets "the supernatural claptrap of blockbusters that take themselves far too seriously," says the New York Times. Director Dan Zucker (Airplane!) has taken over from the Wayans brothers and, according to the Daily News, "the jokes come in endless flurries." Zucker "tosses so many of them off with a wink and a grin that they catch you by surprise," chuckles the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, but the Washington Post can't keep up: "It's like trying to read the CNN scroll at the bottom of the television screen while fast-forwarding." (Still, everybody loves "a quick cutaway to a pack of canines after someone observes, Signs-like, that 'the dogs are acting strange.' Indeed, the pooches are riding chariots across the lawn and smoking from a giant hookah.") What does it all mean? Perhaps, as Newsday observes, "films like Scary Movie 3 aren't movies so much as purging rituals for consumers gorged on pop cultural ephemera." (Buy tickets to Scary Movie 3.)

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Skin (Fox). Jerry Bruckheimer's latest glossy drama is "like a cross between Dynasty and Baz Luhrmann's Romeo & Juliet both in terms of style and content," says Salon. The Los Angeles porn industry serves as a surprisingly unsexy backdrop, "nothing more than the thing that generates tons of money, inflames passions and lubricates the plotwork gears," according to the Chicago Sun-Times. There's little nudity, which frustrates some critics: "Skin does an admirable job of showing us the politics, the culture, the angst of sex," notes Time's James Poniewozik. "Would the sexiness of sex be too much to ask for?" But others, like the New York Times' Alessandra Stanley, think "the show works because story lines zigzag in unexpected directions and because the adults do not fit neatly into hero and villain categories." And more than one reviewer concurs with Newsday: The porn king is "perhaps the most interesting, morally ambiguous TV character this side of Tony Soprano."

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The Boy From Oz (Imperial Theatre). "Hugh Jackman's Chest Hair! The Musical" would have been a better title for this Broadway bio of "disco-era Liberace" Peter Allen, says the Washington Post's Peter Marks. Critics may debate the Australian movie actor's best attribute (Ben Brantley is taken with his "long and sinuous frame"; Theatermania.com gushes over "a smile that warms an entire auditorium"), but almost all agree that he's the only reason to see the show. The book is "a turgid, by-the-numbers'résumé' " says the Associated Press, while Allen's music "has worn thinly, sounding rather like Burt Bacharach and seltzer water," according to the New York Post. In the Wall Street Journal, Terry Teachout confesses that that "my Schlock-o-Meter nearly exploded when Allen's dead lover returned as a ghost to sing 'I Honestly Love You' to his grieving companion." Of course, as Broadway.com points out, that's the kind of thing that can make a show "something of a cheesy collector's item."

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Her Husband, by Diane Middlebrook (Viking Press). This biography of Ted Hughes offers a revisionist explanation for his wife's suicide: "Depression killed Sylvia Plath." Longing for the days when Hughesites and Plathians fought to lay blame for her death, the New York Times' Charles McGrath sighs: "As a diagnosis, this seems inarguable, but as mythmaking it's unsatisfactory." But other critics seem relieved. Newsweek is glad "we've come far enough for a balanced appraisal of the Plath-Hughes marriage," and the Boston Globe thinks Middlebrook's approach is right: To "focus too much on what happened or what didn't—to concentrate on the earthly aspects of the marriage at all—is to miss the point." Some, however, are more skeptical of Middlebrook's methods and motivations: Michiko Kakutani dislikes the biographer's "relentlessly Freudian and often highly speculative reading," while John Homans thinks that Middlebrook, with an eye to Hughes' critics, has drafted "the poetic version of the insanity defense: The instincts made me do it. She's his posthumous enabler." (Her Husband.)

Book cover

An Open Book: Coming of Age in the Heartland, by Michael Dirda (W.W. Norton & Co.). Washington Post book critic Michael Dirda's fellow reviewers treat his literary memoir generously, for the most part. The Christian Science Monitor calls An Open Book an "engaging personal history with its own version of the prodigal son story," while Dirda's hometown paper, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, says it's "filled with heart—and brains, and sometimes bile." Dirda's other hometown paper, the Post, brings in Morris Dickstein, who thinks that the critic's tribute to formative influences Randall Jarrell, William Empson, and Ezra Pound "convinces us that there can be an intellectual puberty as turbulent and life-changing as anyone's sexual awakening." (Another formative influence: Dale Carnegie's How To Win Friends and Influence People.) It's left to Newsweek to twist the knife a little: "Though he now claims an affinity for works of cool, measured prose, he early on developed a 'taste for the grandiose and orotund,' the style he employs for most of these reminiscences." (An Open Book.)