Highlights from the week in criticism.

Highlights from the week in criticism.
July 2 2004 2:22 PM

Mighty Spidey

Critics swoon for the sequel.

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Spider-Man 2 (Columbia). "The best superhero movie" of the modern era, in Roger Ebert's opinion, manages the impossible: even better reviews than the much-loved first Spider-Man. Not only is Spider-Man 2"smarter, hipper, faster, funnier, and flat-out more electrifying than the original," according to Premiere—it's also, says the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, "the movie summer's most touching young romance." Tobey Maguire, who's "reached a new level of arachnid loveliness" in Entertainment Weekly's eyes, struggles with the strains of life as a superhero and moons over Kirsten Dunst: His travails make this "a blockbuster with tremendous emotional resonance," says the Onion. New villain Doc Ock, played by Alfred Molina, is a big hit. His mechanical * arms "move like sinuous belly dancers," says Rolling Stone, while the Washington Post savors "the black hubris of his eyes" and "the vitality of his nasty line readings." (Read David Edelstein's review.) (Buy tickets to Spider-Man 2.)

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Before Sunset (Warner). Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy—"the Astaire-Rogers of undergraduate philosophizing," according to the Village Voice's J. Hoberman—are back together in director Richard Linklater's follow-up to his 1995 film Before Sunrise. Set nine years later, Before Sunset follows the lovers in real time as they stroll the streets of Paris and indulge in "an orgy of talk —flirtatious, soulful, boastful, self-deprecating talk, some of it borderline pretentious but all of it utterly convincing," says David Denby in The New Yorker. Critics are happy to eavesdrop. There's an "incredible sense of, well, suspense," says Premiere: "[T]he things they say to each other could literally change their lives, in a heartbeat." The Los Angeles Times' Manohla Dargis lays on the praise with a trowel, calling this "a film that in its joy, optimism and aesthetic achievement keeps faith with American cinema at its finest." (Read David Edelstein's review.) (Buy tickets to Before Sunset.)

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The Clearing (Fox). Robert Redford, Helen Mirren, and the ever-villainous Willem Dafoe team up for this adult thriller about an executive kidnapped by a resentful ex-employee. The Clearing"avoids the usual screw-tightening antics in favor of a quietly subversive scenario," says the Village Voice: "What if your spouse was kidnapped and your life pretty much stayed the same?" Fans of the movie savor the interplay between Redford and Mirren: "[I]n the way of great couples," "they seem to be communicating telepathically," says LA Weekly, and Entertainment Weekly thinks Mirren even pulls off the "quietly heroic" feat of ransoming Redford "from the constrictions of his self-definition as a romantic movie star." But just as many critics are bored by the atmosphere of high-class tastefulness: This is "a bloodless melodrama, with bottled water running in its veins," yawns Dave Kehr in the New York Times. (Buy tickets to The Clearing.) 

"Beyond Geometry: Experiments in Form 1940s−70s" (Los Angeles County Museum of Art). "This historical era has become almost trendy," observes Michael Kimmelman in the New York Times: "There have been a slew of exhibitions," and "art magazines have been devoting issues to Minimalism." "Beyond Geometry" looks past minimalism to survey a slew of countercultural -isms, incorporating artists outside of America and Europe to make the point that "globalism isn't a new cultural phenomenon," according to Kimmelman. With room for 200 category-defying pieces of art, "the theme is just too large," says the San Diego Union-Tribune, but the Los Angeles Times is too busy grooving on the "visual and conceptual chaos" to care: "The strength of the show lies in the way it kicks out the jams." (3 a.m. tiki parties seem to help.) And everyone sounds a little nostalgic for a time when "artists still believed in a kind of avant-gardism," and the air "hummed with the excitement of experimentation" (Union Tribune).

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What's the Matter With Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America, by Thomas Frank (Metropolitan Books). The Baffler editor's latest analyzes the domination of the Midwest electorate by the Republican Party, arguing that it uses cultural politics to mask economic exploitation. Fans on both coasts hail the book as "a political and cultural critique of dreadnought proportions" (Oregonian) that contains "the kind of nuanced ideas that should be talking points for the Kerry campaign" (New York Observer). Kansas itself was surprisingly receptive: The Wichita Eagle said Frank is "on to something important ... that Kansans need to face," although his arguments "offend too easily" to convert local conservatives. * Detractors like to claim that Frank is no different than the right-wingers he attacks: The New York Times, focusing on Frank's "contempt" for disagreement, pushes an Ann Coulter comparison, while the Boston Globe, homing in on his class obsession, draws David Brooks parallels with an elaborate chart. Less superficially, the Dallas Morning News complains that Frank simply refuses to accept "that cultural and foreign policy concerns may be legit." (Buy What's the Matter With Kansas?)

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Shadow Divers: The True Adventure of Two Americans Who Risked Everything To Solve One of the Last Mysteries of World War II, by Robert Kurson (Random House). The titles The Perfect Storm and Into Thin Air are invoked relentlessly by reviewers of this tale of diving for sunken treasure—in the form of a German U-Boat—off the coast of New Jersey. And for good reason: Do we have a "fantastic yarn that happens to be true" (Newsweek)? Check. "Gripping mystery, incredible discoveries, true-blue friendship, life-or-death crises and history unfolding before the reader's eyes" (New York Times)? Check. "A desire to explore the shadowy depths of one's inner being, or something like that" (Time)? Check. Bad puns? Check: "You will not surface again till the end"; "worth the plunge" (Philadelphia Inquirer, Chicago Sun-Times). If there's a criticism of Shadow Divers, it's Kurson's occasionally overheated prose: "He huffs and puffs mightily to add drama and suspense to scenes that don't really need it," says Time. (Buy Shadow Divers.)

Everyday People (HBO). Many TV critics thought this movie about a Brooklyn diner succumbing to gentrification sounded awfully worthy. Though Slate's Dana Stevens couldn't get past Everyday People's "after-school special syndrome," those who stuck with it mostly came away raving. Lovingly shot ("even trash bags stacked by a brownstone's stoop look like something you could freeze-frame, print and put on your wall," said Newsday) in what everyone calls an "Altmanesque" ensemble style, Everyday People has "a sense of intimacy more common in plays," according to the San Francisco Chronicle. The New York Times' Alessandra Stanley praised the film's oblique treatment of race (it "slips around predictable clashes to pursue subtler harmonies"), and the New Republic's notoriously acerbic Lee Siegel was so inspired by its "beautiful counterstatement to dehumanizing reality television" that he revealed a big old sentimental heart—"audiences would flip channels" from Survivor, "if only the network executives had the cojones to bring it on board."

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You Remind Me of Me, by Dan Chaon (Ballantine). Nominated for a National Book Award for his short stories, Dan Chaon tries his hand at longer form in this "moody, artful novel about destiny and determinism." Set in Nebraska and South Dakota, the plot is "a riddle about connections" (San Francisco Chronicle) that jumps around in time between apparently unrelated characters—a boy mauled by the family dog, a bartender/drug dealer, a pregnant teenager—whose stories eventually coalesce. "By scrambling the chronology, Chaon has managed to downplay the gimmick"—given away by most reviews—"that might have made his novel feel hokey," says the San Jose Mercury News. Everybody loves the "deep, dreamy evocativeness" (New York Times) of Chaon's style, and there's a lot of precious talk about "deep compassion" and "orphans lost in the vacillation of life." But it's all too meandering for the Denver Post: "The danger of writing about aimless, marginally interesting people is ending up with an aimless, marginally interesting novel." (Buy You Remind Me of Me.)

Correction, July 2, 2004: This article originally stated that Doc Ock had eight mechanical arms; he does not. Return  to the corrected sentence.

Correction, June 30, 2004: In an earlier version of this piece, the author mistakenly referred to the Kansas City Star as a Kansas newspaper, when in fact it is a Missouri newspaper. The author changed the review cited to one from the Wichita Eagle, a Kansas newspaper. Return to the corrected sentence.

Ben Williams writes "Summary Judgment" forSlate.