Highlights from the week in criticism.

Highlights from the week in criticism.
April 16 2004 3:37 PM

Kill Bill Kills

Critics swoon for the second installment.

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Kill Bill, Vol. 2 (Miramax). In the second half of Quentin Tarantino's homage to Westerns, martial-arts movies, and Uma Thurman, "the body count" is "dramatically lower, while the word count is much higher" (Washington Post). Critics respond in kind. "The Gone With the Wind of exploitation pictures,"L.A. Weekly raves. "The hottest mix tape in the history of cinema,"Rolling Stone hyperventilates. "The most voluptuous comic-book movie ever made," the New York Times salivates. Gone (with a couple of notable exceptions) is the moralizing about violence that dominated discussion of the first film; it's replaced by comparisons to Visconti, von Sternberg, and Sergio Leone. Both Thurman (whose "acrobatic voguing transcends performance") and David Carradine (who "attains almost tragic stature" as Bill) shine; their "complicated relationship" is the film's "emotional core," says the Onion. But what do all the B-movie references add up to? "Transcendental silliness," as the Philadelphia Inquirer has it? Or something "awesomely trivial," in Salon's reverse formula? (Read David Edelstein's review.) (Buy tickets to Kill Bill, Vol. 2.)

Sixteen Wounded (Walter Kerr Theatre). The latest in a steady string of plays examining the politics of terrorism, Sixteen Wounded tells the story of a Palestinian refugee who comes to work for a Jewish baker (Judd Hirsch). Critics want to like a serious new Broadway play—"it feels almost ungracious to be disappointed," says Newsday—but can't get past the overly schematic plot. This is a "political melodrama with the pace of a sitcom," says Ben Brantley in the New York Times; "there's not a major emotional reversal" "that couldn't be clocked with an egg timer, with a minute or two to spare." The New York Post calls playwright Eliam Kraiem's refusal to take sides "remarkable," but the Wall Street Journal's Terry Teachout is impatient with ambiguity, complaining that Kraiem "frames a hugely serious issue" "in slickly theatrical terms, and thus ends up seeming evasive, even shifty."

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The Punisher (Lion's Gate). The newest Marvel Comics adaptation to roll off the conveyor belt is "a thoroughly morose and bilious affair," according to the Washington Post. And they liked the film's brand of vigilante justice. (Watching hero Thomas Jane's "inability to resist his basest instincts is like taking a bite of deliciously dark chocolate," continued the Post.) Those who didn't—i.e., most critics—seem motivated to dish out some revenge of their own. Entertainment Weekly's Owen Gleiberman slaps The Punisher around a little, calling it "a moronically inept and tedious piece of death-wish trash," while the Dallas Observer backhands it, saying it "would be almost offensive were it not so inconsequential." The Onion delivers a sorrowful final blow: The Punisher"seems all too of-the-moment now that 'an eye for an eye' has become national policy." (Read David Edelstein's review.) (Buy tickets to The Punisher.)

Connie and Carla (Universal). In her follow-up to My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Nia Vardalos teams up with Toni Collette; the pair hides out from gangsters using the clever disguise of show-tune-singing drag queens. Critics find the plot derivative—"Jack Lemmon and Marilyn Monroe would be appalled," says the Dallas Observer—and they're unconvinced by Vardalos' drag credentials. The film "fronts the sort of safely asexual gay characters found on network TV," complains the Onion, although Entertainment Weekly argues that Connie and Carlapresents the "bombast and overkill" of drag performance "as the original, underground version of American Idol." There's not nearly enough bombast and overkill for the New York Times' Stephen Holden, however; he calls the "supposedly showstopping" routines "a little dull and lacking in any sense of camp exaggeration." (Buy tickets to Connie and Carla.)

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Freaks and Geeks (Shout! Factory). Very few people watched this quickly canceled high-school comedy-drama when it first aired on NBC in 1999. Most of those who did, it seems, were TV critics. The Arizona Republic's Bill Goodykoontz calls the show "my epiphany"; the New Republic's Ruth Franklin confesses to owning, "via eBay, a complete set of bootleg tapes"; the Washington Post's Jen Chaney says this DVD re-release "actually restores my faith in humanity." Described by Franklin as less "a 'warts-and-all' depiction of high school" than "a case of melanoma," the series benefits from what USA Today calls "the geekiest DVD set ever": Produced with fans' input, the six discs include commentary from network execs and actors' parents; a limited edition, packaged high-school-yearbook style, runs to eight discs. The result, says Emily Nussbaum in the New York Times, captures "not just the show itself," but the entire "web of commercial and creative forces that make television different from other art forms." (Freaks and Geeks.)

Bob Dylan and Victoria's Secret. " 'What is sexy?' Is it, perhaps, a leering, aging Bob Dylan?" That's the question asked by new Victoria's Secret ads starring the rock icon, which inspire much critical outrage—and some outrageous use of Dylan lyrics. "Another music icon purchased, bag and baggage, by The Man," says Ad Age's Bob Garfield, apparently seriously. "Yes, maybe the times they are a'changin', but must he throw it in our face like this?" The Miami Herald notes that "rock's credibility has long been blowin' in the wind" while the Seattle Times seems to have put the lyric search function at bobdylan.com to good use: They dig up some classic lines about advertising and inform us that "Dylan has never sung about undergarments." In Slate, Seth Stevenson wonders about Dylan's motives, deciding on "exposure" (followed by "cash" and "pure whimsy"); as for Victoria's Secret's intent, "the answer, my friend, is totally unclear. The answer is totally unclear."

Looking for Fidel (HBO). Oliver Stone's "trademark jittery camera," says the Los Angeles Times, "swirls around Castro" in this documentary, "sometimes zooming in for close-ups on pores, other times pulling back for broad shots." But all it reveals, according to John Leonard in New York, is "inkblot eyes, liver spots, a scraggle about the iconic beard, and more of the burnt filament showing through a thinner bulb of skull." The director, says Leonard, is too "preoccupied with his own game face" to wonder "about our sick, romantic need for a Third World stage set and imaginary guerrilla playmates." In the New York Times, Stone compares Castro to Nixon (both men were "stigmatized by so many people"), but the Wall Street Journal has a different parallel in mind: In scenes with accused hijackers and their lawyers, the dictator sounds "a lot like David, the middle-manager from hell, in BBC-TV's The Office."

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The Madonna of Excelsior, by Zakes Mda (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). This novel "seeks to go to the very soul of post-apartheid South Africa," raves the Economist. Chronicling the life of a black woman caught up in the immorality trials that resulted from the country's antimiscegenation laws, Mda "is able to locate desire in its rightful place at the center of history, that all-too-human affair," says the Los Angeles Times. The author "explains apartheid in almost sympathetic terms," according to the Washington Post, and the New York Times concurs, calling this "a book of huge emotions"—but worrying that the "grace and simplicity" of Mda's voice is so likable, it sometimes works against "the harshness and complexity of the world it is describing." But in the end, says the Boston Globe, he "doesn't shortchange the inherent horrors of apartheid, or South Africa's struggles to heal itself." (The Madonna of Excelsior.)

Ben Williams writes "Summary Judgment" forSlate.

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