Highlights from the week in criticism.

Highlights from the week in criticism.

Highlights from the week in criticism.

Highlights from the week in criticism.
Dec. 12 2003 5:13 PM

Bloody Sell

The makers of Grand Theft Auto release an even gorier game.

Manhunt (Rockstar Games). "Shocking, desensitizing violence that borders on being pornographic" is the selling point for the latest game from the self-consciously edgy company behind Grand Theft Auto. The "reality TV on steroids" premise puts players in the role of a death row inmate set free by a snuff film director who's looking for a new star. Critics admire the "great-looking video filter effect" used to depict such scenes as "a gang member wheezing, choking and sputtering blood while his head is hacked off"—although some had trouble playing Manhunt for long "without becoming nauseous." (Others, however, are so enthralled they have to fight the temptation to "lapse into English-major speak" about the Eros-Thanatos complex.) But what really sets Manhunt apart, according to Gamespot, is the suspense-laden soundtrack, which features movie actor Brian Cox in "a truly outstanding performance" as the snuff director.

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Something's Gotta Give (Sony). Critics are very happy to see Diane Keaton in this romantic comedy: The New York Times salutes her "unparalleled comic skill"; Entertainment Weekly calls her "funny, tender, quick, and never more charismatic"; and Rolling Stone says "she steals your heart and the movie." The film's demographic twist is that Keaton has two suitors: Jack Nicholson, stretching as an aging womanizer, and Keanu Reeves, stretching as a young doctor. Nicholson and Keaton's love scenes get raves—the film "suddenly becomes magical" when they "crawl into bed," says the Chicago Tribune—but the button-pushing premise divides reviewers. Salon praises "a sly way of presenting all the usual prejudices against May-November romancing"; the Village Voice sees "pandering tripe" and "market-researched tosh." And the Dallas Observer spots a plot hole: If Something's Gotta Give is about wish-fulfillment, then "why have Keaton end up with Nicholson when she could have Keanu Reeves?" (Buy tickets to Something's Gotta Give.)

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Stuck on You (Fox). Depending on who you listen to, the Farrelly brothers have either matured or gone soft with this film about conjoined twins (Matt Damon and Greg Kinnear) who find unlikely success in Hollywood. The Onion thinks the directors have "abandoned shock humor in favor of a gentler, more humane, and far more approachable form of idiocy," and the Village Voice says "a daft sweetness and inclusiveness" carries the film beyond its "one-joke scenario." On the flip side, the Dallas Observer laments that the Farrellys' "sweet streak has grown, like a cancer, and gradually killed off any of the edge their humor may have once had" while the L.A. Weekly claims they've always had humanity—"but it derived from their determination not to tow any PC party lines." (Read David Edelstein's review here.) (Buy tickets to Stuck on You.)

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Big Fish (Columbia/Sony). This "blend of fantastic noodling and astute psychological drama" pits a father full of tall tales (Albert Finney and, as his younger self, Ewan McGregor) against a son resentful of his lies (Billy Crudup). Tim Burton directs, and "you can feel the loopiness of his spirit busting free" in the "wide-eyed Southern gothic picaresque" scenes that dramatize the father's yarns, says Entertainment Weekly. But when the action returns to deathbed confrontation and reconciliation, "the shock is as bracing as waking up from a glorious dream," according to the Onion. Everybody compares Big Fish to Forrest Gump, and New York, among many others, thinks Burton's a fish out of water with that kind of material: "He wants to be heartwarming, but his imagination is too gnarled and brackish, too infernally odd." (Read David Edelstein's review here.) (Buy tickets to Big Fish.)

Rolling Stone. This won't surprise anyone who's ever read Jann Wenner salivating over Mick Jagger, but according to rock critic Greg Kot, Rolling Stone sometimes increases the star ratings on its reviews. "Occasionally they'll bump up a record that I didn't feel was as good, and they don't change a word of writing, so it's like weird, it's like you read the review and it reads like a two-star review but there is a three-star rating on it," Kot told teen magazine New Expression. Perhaps something similar happened during the vote-counting for the magazine's recent, much- derided "500 Best Albums of All Time" issue, which combined the opinions of 273 rock critics and music industry types to produce a self-parodically 1960s-dominated canon.

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Best Books of 2003. The remarkable thing about the sprawling best-book lists published in early December (in the Washington Post, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Chicago Tribune, to name just a few) is how diverse they are: A few titles appear on many lists, but otherwise everyone manages to pick very different books. Summary Judgment's exceedingly scientific survey of nine lists reveals that the runaway best Best Book of 2003, selected significantly more often than any other, is Edward P. Jones'The Known World, a novel about black plantation owners. For non-fiction, David Maraniss'They Marched Into Sunlight: War and Peace, Vietnam and America, October 1967 just edges Anne Applebaum's Gulag: A History. The New York Times' top picks offer the best snapshot of the conventional wisdom (almost all its choices appear on multiple other lists), while Amazon's top 50 is the most eclectic —their No. 1, James Frey's A Million Little Pieces, appears on no other list.

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John Currin (Whitney Museum). "The only painter of note ever to rate a review in Juggs magazine" continues to divide critics with this midcareer retrospective. But while there are still a few naysayers (the Chicago Tribune: "calculating and facetious"; Artnet: Currin's paintings are overpriced), these days the disagreements involve the source of his appeal. Sure, everyone thinks Currin has great technique, wittily references old masters, and likes to bait most social groups, especially women. But is the hook "edgy nostalgia," as New York's Mark Stevens says? Or is it about "the power of the aesthetic to overrule our normal taste, morality, and intellectual convictions," as TheNew Yorker's Peter Schjeldahl suggests? The most popular answer, given by both the Village Voice's Kim Levin and the New York Times' Michael Kimmelman: Currin is "a parodist of suburban social deceits," "the most profound observer of the follies, foibles, and deformations of our shallow times."

Falstaff.The New York Times' Ben Brantley may have described Kevin Kline's turn as Falstaff in the current Lincoln Center production of Henry IV a "watershed performance" that "deviates from the conventions of bluster and braggadocio." New York's John Simon may have broken from curmudgeonly routine to call Kline "the most restrained yet unforgettable Falstaff" and the production "the best American Shakespeare I have ever seen. " But neither critic has seen cranky canonist (and leading bard scholar) Harold Bloom in the role. Director and critic Robert Brustein has, in a staged reading with his own company, and in the New Republic he argues that Kline doesn't live up to Bloom, whose performance was "one of the saddest readings of the part I have ever heard." Bloom apparently "managed to essentialize Falstaff's intelligence, his wit, and particularly his depression and fatigue."

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This Is Not a Test, by Missy Elliott (Elektra/Asylum). As always, Missy Elliott's new album is packed with "all manner of beeps, jingles, buzzes, and whoops popping in and out of the mix like tiny sonic jack-in-the-boxes" (Los Angeles Times). But some critics think Missy's starting to rest on her laurels: The Onion says This Is Not a Test"builds on the glitchy dance-floor minimalism of past triumphs, rather than striking out in bold new directions," and Entertainment Weekly thinks producer Timbaland's signature style "doesn't seem quite as amazing as it did five years ago." Nevertheless, there's clearly still plenty of critical affection for her persona—the Philadelphia Inquirer says "she's at her wry peak"—and Spin even seems worried about her emotional health: "In the record's goofiest patches, there's a grim set to Elliott's jaw, and when she opens up, she seems really vulnerable." ( This Is Not A Test.)

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Sea of Glory: America's Voyage of Discovery, by Nathaniel Philbrick (Viking). Charles Wilkes, the leader of the United States South Seas Exploring Expedition of 1838, "fits nicely into the mold of paranoid and despotic sea captains —from Ahab to Queeg." According to the New York Times' Janet Maslin, "Wilkes hardly emerges as a towering figure": He was court-martialed for whipping his men and massacring Fijians. (He did have a few scientific contributions to his credit.) But the Wall Street Journal praises this well-told "adventure story," and the Christian Science Monitor thrills to tales of "maze-like ice floes, savage cannibals, belching volcanoes, storms, and shipwreck." And there's a patriotic twist: Though we tend to think of such explorers as British, says Newsday, Philbrick "hopes to remind modern audiences that America made a few ripples of its own." (Buy Sea of Glory.)