Highlights from the week in criticism.

Highlights from the week in criticism.

Highlights from the week in criticism.

Highlights from the week in criticism.
March 19 2004 3:04 PM

The Really Wild West

Critics are shocked by Deadwood's cussing, but it's a worthy addition to HBO's gritty legacy.

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Deadwood (HBO). "The most profane western in the history of the genre," as Newsday dubs this new series set in the 1870s gold rush town, proves that curse words still have the power to unsettle. The "gore, reckless violence and rough sex" served up by NYPD Blue creator David Milch are merely "the topping to a verbal blitzkrieg," says the Seattle Post-Intelligencer; both "the frequency of the profanities and their rap-video modernity" are "shocking" according to USA Today. But the show is based on historical fact and, like the Aramaic in The Passion of the Christ, all the swearing "sounds appropriate," argues the Cleveland Free Times. Cursing aside, Deadwood is "Hobbesian," says New York: "Even when they're tall or fat, these claims jumpers, real-estate swindlers, road agents, opium addicts, and saloon girls are nasty, brutish, and short." The series is another HBO slow-burner. Those who stay the course "will eventually be rewarded," assures the Daily News; "but at first blush (and you're likely to), it's a long #!@% haul."

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Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Focus). Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman is "not so much a conjurer with a trick up his sleeve as a guy madly sewing extra sleeves onto his jacket," says Anthony Lane. Kaufman's latest bravura performance is not only told in reverse, Memento-style, it also involves a medical procedure that scrubs people's memories clean, scene by scene. The result: "a baroque and intermittently brilliant brain twister so convoluted that it inevitably deposits the viewer in an alternate universe," according to the Village Voice. Yet Eternal Sunshine"might fly off the handle into meta-hot air," cautions Rolling Stone, if not for the "grounded and groundbreaking performances" of Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet. She's "terrifically witty, spontaneous and emotionally transparent," raves Variety; he's "never been so tamped down." "At heart," concludes the Onion, this is "a surprisingly bittersweet love story"—it "bends your brain and breaks your heart at the same time," says Entertainment Weekly. (Read David Edelstein's review.) (Buy tickets to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.)

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Dawn of the Dead (Universal). The zombie-movie renaissance continues with this remake of George Romero's 1978 horror classic. Set in a shopping mall, like the original, the new version "has a death-metal energy all its own," says the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Zombies move faster in 2004: Where Romero's flesh-eaters "lumbered and shuffled from place to place," new director Zack Snyder's "dash around like post-Thanksgiving shoppers at an early-morning Target sale," chuckles the Miami Herald. There are "enough oozing sores and exploding heads to make a trauma nurse sick," enthuses the San Jose Mercury News. And everybody loves the in jokes ("Q: 'Is everyone there dead?' A: 'Well, deadish!' "). Yet "what makes the film pop aren't the buckets of blood, but the filmmakers' commitment to genre fundamentals," says the Los Angeles Times. Whereas shows like CSI rationalize gore "with sober forensics," "there's no such pretense with these zombies—they live only so we can watch them die." (Buy tickets to Dawn of the Dead.)

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Taking Lives (Warner Bros.). Taking Lives seems to mark a breaking point for serial-killer movies. A.O. Scott imagines its makers possessing "the same weary, anxious professionalism that drives the heroes and heroines. How to refresh a premise that has been so stale for so long?" Angelina Jolie stars as an FBI agent who gets into her quarry's mind-set by studying crime scene photos "while she's eating dinner. And while she's bathing. And even while she's having sex." Inevitably, she gets romantically involved with the prime suspect. The film swipes from Seven"like a cinematic pickpocket but only comes up with lint," scoffs the Chicago Tribune; it's "one long wallow in elements that have long since had their effectiveness dulled flat," sighs the Onion. As for Jolie, Entertainment Weekly has some advice: "Your career is in trouble when you star in a grade-Z serial-killer mystery—and people still think of it as an Ashley Judd movie." (Buy tickets to Taking Lives.)

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Little Children, by Tom Perrotta (St. Martin's Press). The New York Times is giving this satire of suburban anomie among well-off thirtysomethings the big push. Janet Maslin calls Little Children a "soccer-mom 'Bovary' " and predicts a "breakthrough popular hit," while Will Blythe's cover story in the NYT Book Review praises Perrotta for taking "a mean wet wipe" to American culture's "sugary and unassailable encomiums to children." Blythe lauds Perrota's humanism, calling him an "American Chekhov," but the San Francisco Chronicle plumps for Tolstoy; it says the book reverses the Russian to suggest "that all unhappy families are unhappy in the same way." There are caveats: The Chronicle thinks a "grim" child molester subplot doesn't mesh with the "bittersweet bedroom farce," while the Onion complains about supporting characters from "a central-casting conception of suburban dystopia." But the Christian Science Monitor says Perrotta has found novel variations on a familiar theme and "cooked up recipes of depravity that would curl Betty Crocker's hair." (Buy Little Children.)

Embedded(Public Theater). Tim Robbins' Brechtian satire "asks the questions that desperately needed to be heard last year about complicitous journalism and the Iraq war," says Newsday. That's not a compliment. As Ben Brantley puts it, the show is preaching from "last Sunday's sermon"—and it's "strenuously unfunny" to boot, according to the Miami Herald. The ennui crosses party lines, too: "Whether you agree with it is irrelevant. It's just a bore," says the New York Post. Robbins does manage to provoke the New Republic over his understanding of the term "neoconservative." It calls Embedded "poisonous, a production-length conspiracy theory," rips apart the portrayal of Leo Strauss, and criticizes the "notoriously loose reporting standards" of the British newspapers Robbins cites in his program notes. The Daily Telegraph fires back haughtily from across the Atlantic, sniffing that "American journalists seemed to find the basic concept of balance hard to grasp" during the war and praising a "savage and extremely effective" show.

Whitney Biennial (Whitney Museum). "The art world is dying to like the 2004 Whitney Biennial," says the Village Voice's Jerry Saltz. And like it they do (even Saltz insists his "OK" verdict isn't damning with faint praise). TheNew Yorker's Peter Schjeldahl calls it "startlingly good," the New York Times' Michael Kimmelman says it's "easily the best in some years," and Slate's Mia Finemanpraises "a focused, intelligent, thematically coherent show." Most agree there's "no punchy headline," just a number of trends: intergenerational, utopian, gothic, '60s nostalgic, beautiful. But "somebody will declare this show a welcome sign of the return to painting and drawing," predicts Kimmelman. That someone is Schjeldahl, who crows: "Framing and the delineation of vision reign. Tactility counts. Aesthetics trump politics." Newsweek wasn't so impressed: "The big disappointment is the painting."

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The Dew Breaker, by Edwidge Danticat (Knopf). This suddenly timely novel portrays one of "Baby Doc" Duvalier's torturers from the perspectives of 9 different Haitian immigrants. The Economist complains that "this structure dispels emotional intensity, and turns the book into a series of vignettes"; everyone else thinks it works brilliantly. "Elliptical at the beginning," says the Los Angeles Times, "the book gathers impressive focus and force." It has both the "sharp, jeweled clarity" of Danticat's best short stories and "a scale that manages to feel epic in a mere 242 pages," according to the Seattle Times. The Sacramento Bee praises "tough, muscular writing, unsparing as an executioner" (a rather unfortunate metaphor), and the Miami Herald admires "memorable, cinematic" scenes. Even Michiko Kakutani offers unqualified praise: She says "it is a measure of Ms. Danticat's fierce, elliptical artistry that she makes the elisions count as much as her piercing, indelible words." ( The Dew Breaker.)