Highlights from the week in criticism.

Highlights from the week in criticism.

Highlights from the week in criticism.

Highlights from the week in criticism.
April 2 2004 4:27 PM

Is Air America Any Good?

The birth pangs of liberal talk radio.


Air America."Rush Limbaugh can sleep soundly. For now," said the Minneapolis Star-Tribune after this liberal talk radio network's debut. Critics agreed that Al Franken, who leads the programming, needs to sharpen up: Howard Kurtz called him "meandering and discursive," the Boston Globe said "he is not a good interviewer," and the New York Times thought his mix of "mockery and mild indignation" proved the difficulty of matching "the fervor and ferocity of right-wing radio." Right-wing radio hosts were happy to agree: Jay Severin claimed "audience demographics" would be "the death knell" for liberal talk, and in the Los Angeles Times, Richard A. Viguerie and David Franke questioned Franken's commitment (he has a one-year contract), reminding that the conservative talk empire "was the result of decades of hard work." Franken did win praise for high-powered guests—but the New Republic noted that it "doesn't bode well" when a show's "most entertaining segment is one featuring Al Gore."

Walking Tall (MGM). The Rock may be built "like Jet Li trapped in Arnold Schwarzenegger's body," and he may spend most of Walking Tall dispensing justice with a wooden stick, but critics seem more struck by his inner qualities. The Hollywood Reporter calls the chiseled ex-wrestler "a self-possessed, charismatic screen presence"; Entertainment Weekly admires his "inherent glamour"; and the New York Times says his "mildness of speech" and "modesty of bearing" "immediately give him a human dimension." The film itself, a remake of a 1973 cult classic in which the hero cleans up his hometown, is "streamlined for maximum pummeling," says the L.A. Weekly. The Chicago Tribune enjoys the "intense and gritty fight scenes," but the Village Voice dismisses the film as "a ridiculous macho slugfest," and the Washington Post says the final outcome "feels as clumsily scripted and simplistic as any professional wrestling match." (Buy tickets to Walking Tall.)


Hellboy (Columbia/Sony). "A thickly muscled humongo freak with skin as red as tandoori chicken"—as Entertainment Weekly describes him—is the hero of this comic-book adaptation. Played by Ron Perlman with "gruff romanticism," Hellboy was created by Rasputin for the Nazis but now fights hordes of monsters for the FBI. (As the New York Times notes, "the story is pretty complicated.") Some, like the Hollywood Reporter, think the film's mélange of superhero tropes is "pretty derivative stuff." But most fall hard for what the Wall Street Journal summarizes as "gorgeous imagery, vertiginous action and a surprising depth of feeling." There's an "engrossing grossness" in all the "rotted, desiccated flesh and exposed, traumatized organs," says the Times. But "it's the tenderness that comes as an unexpected bonus," according to Rolling Stone: The "sweetest, funniest, most humanizing moments" involve Hellboy's crush on a fellow mutant played by Selma Blair. (Read David Edelstein's review.) (Buy tickets to Hellboy.)

Home on the Range (Buena Vista/Walt Disney). Rumored to be Disney's last traditionally animated cartoon, Home on the Range stars Roseanne Barr, Judi Dench, and Jennifer Tilly as three cows who try to save their owner's farm from a cattle rustler. The Onion compares the film's "manic energy," "inspired characters," and "smart script" to "classic Warner Bros. animation," but few other critics are feeling sentimental. The Washington Post, perhaps spoiled by Pixar's detail, says "the animation looks flat and muddy throughout" while the Los Angeles Times complains the action is "so comically frantic it wears you out as much as it entertains." The Chicago Tribune isn't even charmed: "Putting cows at the center of a fast-moving comedy cartoon seems perverse," it carps, because they "just waddle along." Still, Barr, Dench, and Tilly play with "tongue-in-cheek delight upon their public personas," says the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and "their sweetly adversarial gibes" liven up a "rather pedestrian story line." (Buy tickets to Home on the Range.)

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Damita Jo, by Janet Jackson (Virgin). "The semi-secret daydreams that fill this album" might tempt you to think Jackson's Super Bowl stunt "was the expression of some private fantasy," says the New York Times. Simultaneously coy and lurid, Damita Jo—"it's her middle name, by the way, not her porn name"—turns off most critics. The Los Angeles Times thinks Jackson's "heavy-breathing pop porn" now "has an air of refreshing defiance," but Newsweek finds the combination of "breezy, field-of-daisies harmonies over deep throaty moans and groans" "downright creepy." The album has a one-track mind, complains the Philadelphia Inquirer: "There's no candlelit massage. No mood music. Just Jackson the sexplorer, anticipating the sexsational sexplosion her sexhibitionist sexcapades will set off." And the vacuous spoken-word interludes annoy everybody: "If you're going to talk to us intimately on your CD, at least tell us about your divorce, your workout tips and what you were thinking on Super Bowl Sunday," vents Rolling Stone. (Damita Jo.)

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A Chance Meeting: Intertwined Lives of American Writers and Artists, 1854-1967, by Rachel Cohen (Random House). "One of the great intellectual bathroom reads of all time," according to the San Francisco Chronicle, A Chance Meeting uses the six degrees of separation method to trace friendships and connections between 30 American artists. For the Village Voice, "the tidbits of gossip" make the book an "irresistible People for the literary set." Others take it more seriously: The Boston Globe calls it an "elaborate fugue" that suggests that "all biography is about love," and the Los Angeles Times is struck by Cohen's "inquisitively amicable, labile sympathy." In Slate, Meghan O'Rourke argues that Cohen's "group approach" conjures "a holistic vision of the artist as a strange man among many strange men," in contrast to Harold Bloom's theory of artistic creation as oedipal struggle with one's literary forebears. The New Republic agrees but notes that "there is a weakness to this strength. Cohen is averse to the darker compulsions of artists and writers." (A Chance Meeting.)

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Free Culture: How Big Media Uses Technology and the Law To Lock Down Culture and Control Creativity, by Lawrence Lessig (Penguin Press). The intellectual property lawyer makes his case for radically revising copyright law. Most reviewers agree with American Lawyer's assessment that "life in the media spotlight has done Lessig good": "his prose has gotten more taut, and even." There's less harmony on his prescriptions. Some responses are predictable: Forbes claims Lessig's suggestions "would consistently screw creators, reward infringers and put the U.S. at odds with international law"; Slashdot says that rather than "trying to 'smash' the copyright system," "he's just trying to restore its ability to function." Others are not: The Wall Street Journal argues that Lessig "should be talking to conservatives" not "Howard Dean liberals"—"Viewed up close," copyright "looks like a constantly expanding government program run for the benefit of a noisy, well-organized interest group." (Free Culture, or download it for free.)

Snark. The debate over critical vitriol continues. Bracing himself for a lengthy evisceration in notoriously nasty critic Dale Peck's upcoming Hatchet Jobs, literary critic Sven Birkerts throws down a genteel glove in the spring Bookforum. Considering the changing landscape of literary culture, Birkerts claims that "bottom-line economics," "the wholesale flight of academia into theory," "the mentality of the blockbuster" and "the proliferation of online alternatives" to "the confident authority of print journalism" have led us into "the dark ages"—a time when, yes, the center cannot hold. Snark, he argues, is both a reviewer's response to "the terrible vacuum feeling of not mattering, not connecting, not being heard" and a logical reaction to irony as the default cultural mode—"gratuitous negativity" is "where the ironist goes when evasions begin to cloy." Back in the day, says Birkerts, such things were "just not done" (although he himself cites Norman Mailer as a precedent). There may be some truth to his history, but—since this whole debate is about tone—he sure makes "reasoned pronouncement" sound tweedy; do "frustration and rage" really have "nothing to do with literature"?