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. 26 2003 1:02 PM

Paycheck Is Worthless

But critics think Renée Zellweger is the queen of Cold Mountain.

Paycheck (Paramount). "The title of this limp retread of Minority Report," says Rolling Stone, "presumably refers to the reason the big names involved did this movie." Other reviewers are no kinder to Ben Affleck's new sci-fi thriller, directed by John Woo and based on a Philip K. Dick short story about a tech engineer whose memory is erased after he completes a multimillion dollar contract. The Chicago Tribune calls it "slick dreck, well-done but ridiculous" and cracks, "You may wish you had the picture's gimmickry at your disposal, so you could erase your own memory of it." The only image Entertainment Weekly retains from the film is "the cleft chins of Affleck and [co-star Aaron] Eckhart, pointed at each other like Woo weapons." And the Los Angeles Times complains that "Even Woo's trademark moves—a bird fluttering in slow motion, men jamming guns in each other's faces—feel recycled." Still, Newsday does think it's "the tightest John Woo movie since his Hong Kong heyday." (Buy tickets to Paycheck.)

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Cold Mountain (Miramax). Anthony Minghella's Civil War epic offers a double dose of Oscar bait, says the Village Voice: "It's a big fat war movie and a tender love story." Adapted from Charles Frazier's best seller, the film follows a Confederate soldier (Jude Law) and his odyssey home to North Carolina and his love (Nicole Kidman). Fans are swept away: David Denby says Cold Mountain is more "visionary, erotic, and tragic" than Gone With the Wind and calls its style "hallucinatory realism—high-flown yet filthy with the mire and blood of war." Skeptics are unmoved: Entertainment Weekly thinks the film is "emotionally detached" and New York finds Law and Kidman too pretty, saying, "It's difficult to ponder hardship and starvation while all this preening is going on." (However, most think we can pencil rambunctious Renée Zellweger in for Best Supporting Actress.) Also, wonders Time, "Where are the slaves? Ahem, where are the black folks?" (Read David Edelstein's review.) (Buy tickets to Cold Mountain.)

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List-Mania.The annual deluge of year-end wrap-ups and best-of lists is upon us. A few of the more idiosyncratic: Merriam-Webster's Top 10 Words of the year. ("Democracy" and "quagmire," OK, but "batten" and "outage"?) The blog Reality Blurred tracks the Year in Reality TV ("Talent ceases to make a difference"; "Show concepts become so 2002"). Entertainment Weekly's Five Worst Movies turns up five offerings more wretched than Gigli. Film Threat nominates the Coldest People in Hollywood. The Onion hands the coveted Least Essential Album by a Pro Wrestler Award to Randy Savage. But the most fascinating list (at least until Google's Year-End Zeitgeist is published) may be American Brandstand's. The company tracks product mentions in the Billboard Top 20 singles charts, citing Mercedes as the top 2003 brand and 50 Cent as the leading brand-dropper. Ludacris gets a special shout-out for "Boldest use of a difficult rhyme": "But Louis Vuitton bras all over your breasts/ Got me wanting to put hickies all over ya chest (ah!)."

Rising Up and Rising Down, by William Vollmann (McSweeney's). The Village Voice calls this seven-volume treatise on violence—contained in "a burgundy, cloth-covered box with gold foil detail" and including a "moral calculus" in pamphlet form—"the sort of book that doesn't really exist, but only gets used as a gag in other books." Others compare its size and range to Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and Frazer's The Golden Bough. Yet "the strength of Vollmann's project lies not in its size," says the San Francisco Chronicle, "but in his awe-inspiring ability to juggle thousands of years of historical anecdotes and events and combine them with deep personal introspection" (one volume chronicles Vollmann's travels in war-torn regions). "Not surprisingly, he finds most acts of violence unjustified," says the Washington Post. The Voice finds that conclusion banal but admires the prose: "Loving descriptions of Vollmann's own weapons made me want to run out and buy a Sig Sauer right that instant." (BuyRising Up and Rising Down.)

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Double Vision, by Pat Barker (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). The latest novel from this British author is also "an interrogation of the violence that besets our contemporary world." Barker's conclusion? Violence "is indivisible from human nature, from nature itself," according to Salon. Although set in the English countryside, Double Vision encompasses Ground Zero and Sarajevo, mad cow disease, and violent accidents; it "skillfully captures the uneasy essence of life after Sept. 11," says the San Jose Mercury News. Time admires Barker's "spare but still sometimes resplendent writing" but thinks she occasionally "gets lost in the tangles of her multiple ambitions," and Britain's Observer says the references to 9/11 and the Milosevic trial are shoehorned into the plot, leaving "the impression of something faintly exploitative." Still, "at its best," opines the New York Times, "the ideas are real, the suspense is real, and the novel achieves a riveting marriage of theme and structure." (Double Vision.)

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Mr. Timothy, by Louis Bayard (HarperCollins). This riff on A Christmas Carol picks up where Dickens left off, putting a grown-up Tiny Tim at the center of what the Wall Street Journal calls "a mock-Victorian tour de force: a shilling-shocker that touches the heart and makes it race." While a series of child murders drives the plot, "Bayard peppers the novel with linguistic playfulness and an expert's awareness of Dickens' literary oeuvre," says Washington's Metro Weekly. Highlights include a series of letters written by Tim to his father, the late Bob Cratchit, in which he takes issue with what he considers to be Bob's mythologizing of him as a child saint. The Christian Science Monitor thinks this strand of the narrative is "a truly moving meditation on grief and reconciliation." But the New York Times finds it too "arch," although in the end the book is "an inventive and amusing turn" on its source. (Mr. Timothy.)