Highlights from the week in criticism.

Highlights from the week in criticism.

Highlights from the week in criticism.

Highlights from the week in criticism.
Nov. 26 2003 11:37 AM

Go West, Old Man

Tommy Lee Jones rides off with The Missing.

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The Missing (Columbia). Cate Blanchett and Tommy Lee Jones nearly ride off with this Ron Howard-directed Western, which has as many detractors as fans. Everyone compares the child-kidnapped-by-Indians plot to John Ford's classic The Searchers: The Chicago Tribune approvingly calls it "a feminist, pro-Native American variation on the theme," but the Onion thinks it "converts Ford's dark journey of the soul into a mushy tale of paternal redemption and self-sacrifice." What sets The Missing apart from other Westerns, says Time, is "a potent mystical element," but the Philadelphia Inquirer finds the film's shamanism extraneous: It "doesn't entirely mesh with the earthbound quest across the wild and glorious Southwest." Nevertheless, Blanchett is "simply awe-inspiring," according to Premiere, while the Los Angeles Times says Jones—whose face is "so lined it would scare Botox"—has "lost none of his innate aura of menace and danger." (Buy tickets to The Missing.)

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Bad Santa (Dimension). "If your children are over 40, it's probably safe to take them to see Bad Santa," advises Salon's Stephanie Zacharek. Billy Bob Thornton plays a boozing, foul-mouthed, lecherous Santa who robs the stores where he works, and grumpy critics, tired of feel-good Christmas movies, embrace him. The film "takes all the Christmas season's bad vibes and converts them into an achingly funny and corrupt dark comedy," chuckles the New York Times' Elvis Mitchell. Rolling Stone says Thornton is "sublime" as "slime personified," and the Washington Post raves, "as an actor, Thornton alone seems beyond vanity." Most critics—like the Los Angeles Times' Manohla Dargis, who calls this a "Christmas movie that Lenny Bruce could love" —claim Bad Santa is charmingly subversive overall, but Entertainment Weekly disagrees: It's "rancid," "one-note," and "might just as well have starred Andrew Dice Clay." (Buy tickets to Bad Santa.)

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The Haunted Mansion (Buena Vista). Heartened by the success of Pirates of the Caribbean, Disney offers another movie based on a theme park attraction. The Los Angeles Times' Kevin Thomas * thinks Haunted Mansion is "a fright show artfully designed for the whole family," but he's in the minority. The movie "tries to strike a balance between funny and scary," says the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, but "never really generates screams of either kind." It does generate screams of other varieties, however, according to the Dallas Morning News: "You'll yell at Eddie Murphy for sabotaging his screen persona. You'll howl at the cheesy special effects. You'll rant at the nonexistent storyline." The Chicago Tribune's Robert K. Elder, meanwhile, wishes he'd bought a ticket to the ride instead, complaining that in the movie "there's little that outshines effects in the actual Disneyland house. Even the waltzing specters are less spectacular." (Buy tickets to The Haunted Mansion.)

Illustration Mark Alan Stamaty

National Book Awards. An unusually "confrontational" and "electric" National Book Awards ceremony culminated in an unlikely face-off between populist champion Stephen King and literary sophisticate (and fiction winner) Shirley Hazzard. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram chides both authors for "immature mudslinging," and a few critics, evaluating King's honorary award, try to sidestep the whole high- vs. low-culture debate. (The Christian Science Monitor argues that King defies categorization, citing his best sellers' allusions to poets like Wallace Stevens; and Time informs us that there are only two kinds of books: good and bad.) Others storm the barricades: In the Boston Globe, Croatian novelist Dubravka Ugresic derides "contemporary literary professionalism" as comparable to socialist realism and calls King's win "a Fall of the Literary Wall: a final unification, not of good and bad literature but of literature and trash." More reasoned thoughts come from NBA judge Terry Teachout, who points out that previous winners include Oprah Winfrey, and that King champions male popular authors at the expense of romantic fiction. He concludes: "I accept the existence of hierarchies of quality without feeling oppressed by them."

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Old School, by Tobias Wolff (Knopf). Reviewers can't help reading this second novel by Wolff as his third memoir. Like This Boy's Life and In Pharaoh's Army, says the Denver Post, Old School"tackles themes of fathers, manhood and the written word as vehicle for self-discovery." The plot revolves around visits by Robert Frost, Ayn Rand, and Ernest Hemingway to an East Coast all-male prep school; reading the book, says the San Francisco Chronicle, is like attending "an uncommonly sophisticated writing class." The famous authors' "public personas are here deliciously sent up," says Time; the New York Times' A.O. Scott finds it interesting that so modest a writer "should be so adept at capturing the nuances of authorial vanity." (Old School.)

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Factory Made: Warhol and the Sixties, by Steven Watson (Pantheon). The best Warhol chronicle yet, critics say. The Village Voice thinks it "has the most historical perspective," and New York says "Watson gets as close as anyone has to Warhol's brilliant passivity." The book restores the movies, "good and awful alike, to their rightful place at the center of Warhol's career," according to the San Francisco Chronicle. And it gives Warhol's acolytes and associates their due, says New York, portraying the Factory as "a Cheers of the sixties Manhattan avant-garde," with Warhol as "only one of the stars." There are dissenters: City Pages complains that Factory Made"cycles through already published Warhol-movie-land confessional literature," and the Boston Globe wishes "Watson would linger and tell any one of these stories more coherently—with less frantic cross-cutting and more dramatic flair." (Factory Made: Warhol and the Sixties.)

Dale Peck. With typical politesse, the inflammatory critic-novelist said he would turn down a hypothetical job offer from the New York Times Book Review: "I would send back their letter with my own excrement on it." Mind you, the Times did just run a review of Peck's new novel, What We Lost, that indulges in some questionable theorizing about gay men and fatherhood. Other critics also rely on armchair analysis to explain What Dale Peck Wants—Britain's Guardian,among others, suggests that "Peck's writing is motored by a rage that has little to do with literature." Meanwhile, in the New Republic, Peck himself hems and haws and eventually offers a disappointingly vague alternative to the modernist tradition he denounces: "Contemporary novels have either counterfeited reality or forfeited it. In their stead we need a new materialism." Lighter reading: The blog Haypenny.com imagines how Peck might review his day and begins, "The Plental XR-280 is the worst showerhead of its generation."

Correction, Dec. 3, 2003: The original version of this article mistakenly attributed the lone favorable review of The Haunted Mansion to Kenneth Turan, of the Los Angeles Times. It should have been pinned on the LAT's Kevin Thomas. Return to the corrected review.