Highlights from the week in criticism.

Highlights from the week in criticism.

Highlights from the week in criticism.

Highlights from the week in criticism.
Jan. 16 2004 3:16 PM

Dizzee Deelite

The artist that bloggers built.

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Boy in da Corner, by Dizzee Rascal (Matador). This British MC ("imagine a cross between Ghostface Killah and Paddington Bear") may be the first artist to owe his success (at least in part) to blogs. Online critics built hype in early 2003, followed by print raves and a U.K. Mercury Music Prize victory. Stateside, City Pages hears "rattling, shuffling, self-contained eruptions of stammering noise, crunk ColecoVision stutter-step"; Rolling Stone"a high, wound-up and desperate voice that sometimes sounds like Eazy-E, Shabba Ranks and Gary Numan, all stuck inside the same body." Critics are unsure where to fit Dizzee in the hip-hop landscape (the Brits call his sound "grime"). His "mix of brio and vulnerability" earns Tupac comparisons from Pitchfork while Entertainment Weekly senses both '80s hip-hop and alternative rap in his "clammy, trapped-in-the-Underground ambience." The New York Times travels to his native East London, concluding, "He doesn't speak the same language as American rappers —or, perhaps, anyone else." (Boy in da Corner.)

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The Company (Sony). Robert Altman's latest follows a dance company for a few months, sprinkling stars (Neve Campbell as a dancer and Malcolm McDowell as artistic director) among non-actors from the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago. The director eschews backstage drama conventions in favor of an improvisatory, plotless style that "has the found-art feel of a John Cage composition without the shaping rigor," according to the New York Times. The Village Voice dismisses the film as a "doodle," but the Chicago Tribune raves about its "poetry of motion and lyrical delight," and Salon says the dance sequences are "among the most dazzling ever put on film." Roger Ebert finds deeper meanings: He claims The Company's true subject is the creative process and calls it "the closest that Robert Altman has come to making an autobiographical film." (Buy tickets to The Company.)

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Along Came Polly (Universal). "Does someone know the exact day that the porcelain throne became the funniest object on the planet?" wails the Charlotte Observer. Tired of movies that revolve around toilet humor, critics turn up their noses at this romantic comedy starring Ben Stiller (as a timid risk analyst with irritable bowel syndrome) and Jennifer Aniston (as the chaotic daredevil who falls for him). Watching the film "feels like someone is slowly jamming your face into something unpleasant," gags the Chicago Tribune—"and don't even ask about the persistence of blind ferret jokes," adds the Los Angeles Times. The romantic chemistry of Stiller and Aniston is also questioned: The couple sparks nothing more than "an irritating heat rash," says the New York Times. Their marketing chemistry is a different story: The dork/princess combo makes Along Came Polly"a chick flick for guys," observes Entertainment Weekly. (Read David Edelstein's review in Slate.) (Buy tickets to Along Came Polly.)

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The Battle of Algiers (Rialto Pictures). This 1965 docudrama about the French occupation of Algiers was screened by the Pentagon last summer as a primer on terrorism. Now that it's on limited release, some reviewers wonder about the brass's judgment. New York says the film's "anatomy of terror remains unsurpassed" but thinks "not much in the current Iraq situation is historically comparable," and the Village Voice calls it a "revolt anthem" that "sides squarely with the oppressed, bomb-planting Arabs." Others think it's more evenhanded, however: The Washington Post sees "no heroes" and says the film's greatness "lies in its ability to embrace moral ambiguity without succumbing to it." The relevance of the prescient news-footage-style camerawork is disputed, too: The Los Angeles Times says The Battle of Algiers has been "imitated but not improved" while Entertainment Weekly thinks it's been surpassed "by any number of the movies it has influenced." (Buy tickets to The Battle of Algiers.)

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The L-Word (Showtime). Showtime's latest attempt to steal a little of HBO's thunder chronicles a lesbian community in Los Angeles. The "many, many breast shots" induce worries that the real intended audience is titillated straight men. (This might even be "that elusive beast, the male Sex and the City," says the Los Angeles Times.) But the Village Voice thinks there's something for everyone: "Lesbians can revel in glamorous visibility, straight women will find nuanced portraits of female relationships." Nobody believes The L-Word is breaking any dramatic ground, although the New York Times finds something "really quite radical" in its casual assumption that "we live in a world in an advanced state of sexual identity blur." And queer theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick gives two thumbs up in the Chronicle of Higher Education, reveling in the "potential of a lesbian ecology" and calling the show "an important contribution to queer cultural politics."

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Absolute Friends, by John Le Carré (Little Brown). The Cold War setting of this novel's first half has fans purring that Le Carré is "back to what he does best." But it's the present-day finale, in which characters rant against the Iraq war and U.S. imperialism, that's making waves. Britain's Independent sympathizes with Le Carré's "true and important" message, and the Washington Post says his ferocity "is a political event of note, whatever its literary merits." Others think the author's preachy latest lacks the ambiguity of his best work: Michiko Kakutani calls the "hectoring" book "ridiculously contrived," and USA Today says the ending has "all the moral certainty of a Tom Clancy thriller." The London Times Literary Supplement has a cheeky twist: It wonders if Le Carré's well-documented anti-Americanism is the perfect cover for an indictment that "so overshoots reasonable levels of credibility that it undermines the very political message it pretends to send." (Absolute Friends.)

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American Sucker, by David Denby (Little Brown). New Yorker movie critic David Denby waxes confessional in this memoir about losing his wife, apartment, and almost $1 million during the stock market bust. (Gossips have gravitated toward his admission of a brief dalliance with Internet porn —which he discusses, in typical Denby fashion, with much reference to Plato.) The New York Times says American Sucker blends "Woody Allen whimsy" with "gut-punch honesty," and everyone admires novelistic portraits of key boom figures like Sam Waksal and Henry Blodget. But most are unmoved by Denby's meditations on greed and capitalism: The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel snipes that "if he had a deeper navel, he would have written a longer book," the Washington Post recoils from his "pompous petulance and stubborn entitlement," and the New York Sun says that "he seems more ashamed to be thought unintellectual than to actually be lowdown and deceitful." (Buy American Sucker.)

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Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance, and the Rise of Independent Film, by Peter Biskind (Simon & Schuster). Biskind will "never eat lunch in Tribeca again," according to Time, so detailed is his portrait of Harvey Weinstein's bad behavior in this chronicle of the indie movie business. Most reviewers love the dish: Entertainment Weekly calls it "juicy and fascinating," and the New York Observer admires the way Biskind "deftly weaves money-shot quotes into the back story." But the Los Angeles Times is wearied by "endless trash-talking" and "irrelevant gossip," and argues that Weinstein lacks a worthy antagonist. (Redford, depicted as a "passive-aggressive villain," refused to be interviewed, and other indie players "all sound, and act, pretty much alike.") Indeed, Weinstein dominates the book so luridly that Variety improbably "begins to feel sorry for the exec." It also calls Biskind's overview "pretty narrow" and complains that the gossip is focused on dealmaking: "Doesn't anyone in the indie biz sleep around?" (Buy Down and Dirty Pictures.)

Department of Too Much Information. The year-end glut of best-of retrospectives had TheNew Yorker's Louis Menand archly begging for fewer, more authoritative lists and a critical "dolphin who can take us over the waves" of cultural product. Critics fired back in Slate's "Movie Club": A.O. Scott hailed list-making as part of an "endlessly contentious and chaotic movie discourse," and Manohla Dargis called Menand's tone "utterly world-weary." (Music critic Keith Harris observed that the only people who complain about there being "too much popular culture to evaluate are those of us who get paid for the evaluating.") The New YorkTimes reports on the opposite approach to information overload: Only read the lists. Literary theorist Franco Moretti wants to use statistics, graphs, and maps, rather than interpretations, to analyze the entire field of published fiction. (He dreams of "a literary class that would look more like a lab than a Platonic academy.")