Highlights from the week in criticism.

Highlights from the week in criticism.

Highlights from the week in criticism.

Highlights from the week in criticism.
Feb. 27 2004 12:50 PM

Please, Put Baby in the Corner!

Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights has no rhythm. Plus, critical consensus on The Passion.

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Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights (Artisan/Miramax). The Chicago Tribune's Allison Benedikt calls Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights"a pelvis-gyrating, ponytail-releasing, shirt-unbuttoning good time." (However, she also admits to "memorizing dance routines and lines" from the first movie and provides a point-by-point plot comparison.) For everyone else, even a cameo by the "strangely reptilian" Patrick Swayze fails to bring back the glory days of the lambada. Entertainment Weekly laughs at "trifling dialogue and bad faux-'80s love-on-the-beach montages"; Elvis Mitchell complains "the Cuban Revolution" has been turned "into a Carnival Cruise Lines dance number"; Salon says this makes the original Dirty Dancing look "like something out of the golden age of Hollywood." However, says the Dallas Observer, though Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights is "silly, misguided, formulaic and largely a piece of trash," it's "not quite a disaster": The redeeming feature is Y Tu Mamá También's Diego Luna, who "can articulate every number on the clock with his pelvis." (Buy tickets to Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights.)

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The Passion of the Christ (Newmarket). Mel Gibson has invented "a new genre," says Time's Richard Corliss: "The religious splatter art film." Critics focus more on The Passion's graphic torture scenes than its much-ballyhooed anti-Semitism (which gets a split decision best summarized by Premiere: "implicit but not programmatic"). Even fans of this portrayal of Christ's last hours sound slightly stunned: Roger Ebert gives two thumbs way up to "the most violent film I have ever seen" (he "must respect" "the power of belief"), and Entertainment Weekly's Owen Gleiberman says all the beatings are "a sacred form of shock therapy" that "lifts us downward." "For Gibson, religious belief is clearly some kind of endurance test," says Salon's Stephanie Zacharek; "he doesn't seem particularly interested in proselytizing." The Los Angeles Times' Kenneth Turan agrees, calling this a film for the devout: "Without belief," you're "likely to feel as flummoxed by what you're seeing as Western missionaries did when they observed pagan rituals." (Read David Edelstein's review.) (Buy tickets to The Passion of the Christ.)

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Critics at the Box Office. If USA Today is to be believed, all those bad Passion reviews should dampen the film's big early box-office numbers. According to the newspaper's survey of 2003 film releases, "the grades handed out by critics had a significant relationship to the money the movies grossed." Power-hungry critics should think extra hard about those star ratings: Apparently, "even a half-star meant millions of dollars more for a movie's total take." You don't have to be a stats buff to wonder if it's possible to correlate reviews and box office, but USA Today assures that it "accounted for other factors" and found that critics outweigh them all—including A-list actors—except "the number of theaters in which the movie played." There's a twist, however: The paper also claims individual critics "have less impact as arbitrators of art than they did during the '70s"; these days, only a "cacophony of critical interest" has the power to make or break a movie.

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Twisted (Paramount). In her latest neo-noir, Ashley Judd plays a San Francisco cop on the trail of a serial killer who just might be herself (she's prone to alcohol-induced blackouts and, as Entertainment Weekly charmingly puts it, "she's got a scaaary sex drive that compels her to mount every hetero man-skank in Frisco"—after which her conquests wind up dead.) Critics find the script even more than usually implausible: "Joe Eszterhas wouldn't be caught dead" near "this laughably clichéd, abominably written, astonishingly dreadful attempt at a psycho-sexual thriller," spits Premiere. And the Hollywood Reporter, contemplating the "short-tempered, predatory psychos and drunks on the prowl" that make up Judd's unit, calls this "one of the strangest portrayals of a police department ever." As for Judd, she seems to be trying to darken her persona, says the New York Times, but "when she tries to show torment, she manages only to look peeved and grouchy." (Buy tickets to Twisted.)

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Straight Plan for the Gay Man (Comedy Central). "Start at the end of a typical 'Queer Eye' episode, press the rewind button and you have this show," summarizes the Chicago Tribune. In this satire/spinoff, a team of straight guys (the Flab Four) muss up tasteful apartments and take gay men to bowling alleys. Some critics are indulgent. The Los Angeles Times calls Straight Plan a "sweet, good-natured lampoon," and the New York Times claims "the joke is as much on the straight buffoons as it is on their gay clients." "Repeat after me. It's just a joke," tries Newsday, but the Advocate isn't laughing: It slams this as just "another gay minstrel show." (About class, not sexuality: Straightness is presented as "synonymous with working-class.") Unlikely bedfellow USA Today agrees, noting that Queer Eye"doesn't teach straight men to act gay" and proclaiming that "as long as gay bashing and legal oppression exist, teaching a gay man to 'pass' for straight will be wildly offensive."

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Project X (Knopf) and Love and Hydrogen: New and Selected Stories (Vintage), by Jim Shepard. Shepard "has a lock on the new American paranoia" says John Freeman in the Chicago Tribune; his "sentences thrum with ... worry."Project X falls into the emerging genre of Columbine Lit, but the New York Times' Stephen Metcalf thinks it's "considerably better" than the Booker Prize-winning Vernon God Little. The novel "resonates with silent empathy" for misfit adolescence, says the Village Voice, as if Shepard had "held his ear to a real, acne-maimed 13-year-old's chest." The author's "unearthly ability to disappear inside his characters"—including John Ashcroft, the Creature From the Black Lagoon, and Who bass player John Entwistle—also drives the collection Love and Hydrogen, according to the Dallas Morning News. Metcalf detects themes of "boys, guns, suicide" in both books: "Our world, he seems to be saying, over and over, is both animated and rent asunder by boyishness." ( Project X. Love and Hydrogen.)

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Sex and the City (HBO). Given one last shot at the meaning of Sex, critics dip deep into a grab bag of angles both time-worn (it was all about fashion) and original (it was all about Kristin Davis; it was all about … religion?). Slate's Dana Stevens works the lit beat ("not only Austen but a whole tradition of young girls' literature"); the New York Times has a lock on '30s cinema (the show re-established "the vision of a glamorous, mythic New York.") Holding down sociology are the Chicago Tribune ("a demographic and chronological bull's-eye pierced by a stiletto heel") and Slate's Matt Haber, who thinks the writers hated "all those brassy, disposable-income-flinging Carrie-wannabes who've grown like spores." And then there's the endlessly debated final capitulation to coupledom: For the New Republic, it represents "a fantasy world in which the central quandaries of feminism don't have to be faced"; for the Wall Street Journal, the finale's romantic bent was "true to human instinct."

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Someone To Run With: A Novel, by David Grossman (Random House). Aimed at young adults, this "strange combination of Nancy Drew, the Brothers Grimm, S.E. Hinton, and Bruno Schulz" follows the adventures of two runaway teenage lovers in Jerusalem's underworld. The New York Times finds it "hard to reconcile these disparate elements"—possibly because the Israeli tradition of blurring serious and popular fiction "has no real American counterpart," according to the New Republic. But everyone else sees something to like: The Los Angeles Times praises the narrative's "sweep and simplicity"; Salon empathizes with "emotionally complex and extremely likable" characters; and the Miami Herald appreciates "a side of Israeli life that rarely comes across in the cavalcade of media images." "At the very least," says January Magazine, the book's "naive fantasy" of "two unlikely partners" is "a pleasant, dovish dream." But it's "doubtful whether any story set in Jerusalem after 2000 could have a similarly pastoral import," reminds the Jerusalem Post. (Someone To Run With.)