Highlights from the week in criticism.

Highlights from the week in criticism.
June 11 2004 3:35 PM

A Real Uncool Cat

Garfield is everybody's least favorite pet.

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Garfield (Fox). This adaptation, which mixes a computer-animated Garfield voiced by Bill Murray with real actors and animals, "pummels the final creative breath out of a comic strip empire," says the Chicago Tribune. Critics dismiss the movie as a cynical marketing ploy; the New York Times is bracing itself "for Cathy, for Ziggy and, of course, for Marmaduke." Not only has Garfield "been declawed"—his "swiping humor and Monty Python meanness" "surgically removed for a PG audience," says the Tribune—but, adding insult to injury, Odie steals the show. (He's played by "a particularly soulful, half-dachshund/half-cairn terrier mix" with a knack for dancing on its hind legs, reveals the Hollywood Reporter.) Nevertheless, many reviewers do admit, under duress, that small children in attendance enjoyed the movie. Adults, however, "should take care that their corneas don't detach from their eyes rolling up in the back of their heads," advises the Minneapolis Star Tribune. (Buy tickets to Garfield.)

The Chronicles of Riddick (Universal). "This overmuscled sequel" to 2000's cult hit Pitch Black "is all bulk and no definition," says the New York Times. Starring Vin Diesel and Judi Dench ("let's hope this is the last timethat sentence ever appears in print," says the Miami Herald), the film mixes Tolkienesque mythology with nonstop sci-fi action. The result is "an overblown hodgepodge of volcano-baked desertscapes, Egyptoid-gone-baroque architecture, and gladiator-geared storm troopers with goofy headpieces," according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. The main critical question is just how bad The Chronicles of Riddick is—not quite as bad as John Travolta's Battlefield Earth, but still "a candidate for Mystery Science Theater 3000-style raillery and communal home-video perusal," says the Los Angeles Times. As for Diesel, reviewers marvel at his "hilarious vanity": "He's the king of trying too hard; he turns self-adoring musclehead attitude into macho camp," sums up Entertainment Weekly. (Buy tickets to The Chronicles of Riddick.)

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The Stepford Wives (Paramount). There's more camp, this time intentional, in this sendup/remake of the '70s cultural touchstone about a town full of robot wives. Slate's David Edelstein "had a fabulous time" at what he calls "the Provincetown drag show of The Stepford Wives," but other critics find the film trite. The steady stream of jokes "plink like ice cubes in a Sea Breeze on a Fire Island beach," as Entertainment Weekly puts it, but to no avail—"the sting is gone" from this version, says Rolling Stone, and "it misses the premise's shivery tension," argues the Chicago Tribune. And everyone hates the incoherent multiple endings, widely assumed to be a result of focus group-driven revisions. In the end, this is "a Stepford movie," says Salon: "You keep peering in there to see if there are any brains at work, and though you catch an occasional glimmer of something, it's not quite enough to convince you." (Buy tickets to The Stepford Wives.)

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Six Feet Under (HBO). A groundswell of critical opinion says Six Feet Under, which premieres Sunday, is going stale. The San Francisco Chronicle's Tim Goodman states the case most aggressively, claiming the show "just stopped being preposterously tenuous and fell over backward"—this season "seems to telegraph its emotional punches, its dark humor seems far less funny and its pathos rings false." Close behind is Entertainment Weekly's Ken Tucker, who thinks "a formaldehyde fog has settled over Under." He's tired of the "cycles of suppression and release" creator Alan Ball puts his characters through, a complaint echoed by the New York Sun's David Blum, who says "nothing's happening all over the place." And the New York Times' Alessandra Stanley doesn't like the series' renewed swing toward broad Hollywood satire: "[I]t becomes more and more slapstick, a style that clashes with its usual deadpan irony."

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Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, by David Sedaris (Little, Brown). David Sedaris' underdog repertoire now includes stories about "what a drag it is to live in a restored French farmhouse and write for a living," says the San Francisco Chronicle. Critics don't hold that against him yet, however. (In fact, some of them are scarily devoted: "We are NPR-heads," chants the Oregonian. "And we are legion in Portland. And when Sedaris comes to town, on June 8, he will know our bright-eyed ardor.") Sedaris' short tales of personal embarrassment are "a formula, sure, but it bears repeating," argues the Washington Post—"after all, no one complained when Nolan Ryan struck out his 5,000th batter." Nor, perhaps, when a favorite TV show hit its 100th episode. City Pages compares Sedaris' family, who appear in many of these stories, to "a sitcom cast: Their antics are weird enough to produce giggles, but familiar enough to inspire a frisson of recognition." (Buy Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim.)

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The Jury (Fox). The spearhead for Fox's new year-round programming strategy has an original format: 12 different jurors deliberate a case every week, and viewers cast their own votes. But everyone finds a different reason to convict The Jury. The New York Times calls it "clever" and "innovative," but it neglects to explain why, preferring to critique the jittery cinematography as another example of "the Bruckheimerization of television crime shows." Dialogue? It's "hokey and overly dramatic," according to the Seattle Times—and the jury members tend to "fall into stereotypes." And while the San Francisco Chronicle gripes that the "first two verdicts were fairly easy to predict,"The New Yorker carps that you can't "possibly figure out what the ultimate truth of the crime is— you just sit there dumbly waiting for the last shot," which really reveals what happened. (Time, the show's main defender, insists this final moment "makes for provocative, thoughtful endings.")

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Sontag & Kael: Opposites Attract Me, by Craig Seligman (Counterpoint Press). "There's something a little crazy" about throwing Susan Sontag and Pauline Kael together for a critical compare-and-contrast session, says the New York Observer; "one rarely mentions them in the same breath." Most reviewers agree but are charmed by Seligman anyway: "his willingness to roll out his doubts and change his mind, take[s] us to a place we couldn't have reached without him," admits the New York Times. Seligman prefers Kael, whom he knew, but "much more compelling is his teetering ambivalence on Sontag," whom he admires but finds self-righteous, says the New York Press. In the Atlantic Monthly, David Thomson counters with some catty jabs at Kael ("Kael was an intellectual—I'm sure the chickens in Petaluma," where she grew up on a farm, "knew her lectures"). And though he calls Sontag & Kael"a magazine essay stretched out to book length," he adds some words of encouragement: Seligman "will do better than this entertaining book." (Buy Sontag & Kael.)

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The Master, by Colm Tóibín (Scribner). "Writing a novel that captures Henry James is like deriving an equation that calculates Albert Einstein," says the Christian Science Monitor. Yet everyone agrees that Colm Tóibín has "stared the nearly impossible in the face and achieved a quiet tour de force," as the New York Observer puts it, with this biographical novel chronicling five transitional years in James' life. (Repressed sexuality is a major theme; Tóibín even imagines a night of passion with Oliver Wendell Holmes.) The key is not stylistic imitation—Tóibín's prose is "lighter and less ornate" than James', says the London Review of Books—but Tóibín's ability to match his subject "in his awareness of the uses and the costs of evasion," according to the Los Angeles Times. Ultimately, says the Chicago Tribune, "James emerges as a truly Jamesian character —and this is a triumph of imaginative sympathy." (Buy The Master.)

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Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (Warner Bros.). Finally, a Harry Potter adaptation that casts a spell on critics. "Truly wizard," raves Time. "Everything the first two films were not: complex, frightening, nuanced," applauds the Washington Post. Much to everyone's relief, hip Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón (Y Tu Mamá También) has successfully taken over from stodgy Chris Columbus, proving to be J.K. Rowling's "soul mate," says LA Weekly. (Slate's David Edelstein, who suggested Cuarón three years ago, cheekily wonders, "Should I ask for a finder's fee?") Cuarón is "a true romantic," gushes Salon, capturing "not only the books' sense of longing, but their understanding of the way magic underlies the mundane." The real reason for the film's success, says Newsweek, is that "it's about something far more frightening" than "facing Lord Voldemort. It's about being 13." Pubescent wizards Daniel Radcliffe and Emma Watson "dress and sass like modern teens with hormones raging," adds Rolling Stone; "It's irresistible fun watching them grow up onscreen." (Buy tickets to Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.)

The Last Ride (USA). USA took product placement to the next level in Wednesday's TV movie about macho thievery, which stars the Pontiac GTO and Dennis Hopper as lead supporting actor. Critics prefer sarcasm to outrage: The Last Ride "heralds a brave new world of 'actor placement,' " says the Boston Globe, with actors serving only to "lend attitude and allure to the sales pitch." Others question the film's effectiveness as advertising. Variety calls it a "how-not-to-guide" for other sponsors (choice dialogue includes, "It handles as good as they say?"), and Reuters says the takeaway is, "if you're going to commit armed robbery, do it in a souped-up 1969 Pontiac GTO." The New York Times, however, thinks Pontiac knows full well what it's up to: "The show turns the corporate cultivation of rebel spirit into a gleeful goof."

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