Highlights from the week in criticism.

Highlights from the week in criticism.
June 4 2004 5:08 PM

Spellbound

Alfonso Cuarón makes Harry Potter worth watching.

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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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Uh Huh Her, by PJ Harvey (Universal Music Group). The British singer is back with more "tales of sexual obsession told in a voice that swings from whispered innocence to bunny-boiling, caterwauling madness," says Time happily. Most critics welcome Uh Huh Her as a return to the stripped-down angst of Harvey's early years: Each song "is akin to a minimovie," says Entertainment Weekly, "and a grainy, hopelessly evocative one at that." But the critics don't have much new insight to offer: The Los Angeles Times hails the album as another "near-perfect piece of art," comparing Harvey favorably to her more wayward peers, Liz Phair and Courtney Love, and Rolling Stone savors "moments of austere beauty, straight-ahead melancholia and more tenderness than ever." Only Pitchfork thinks it hears something new, gamely trying to argue that Harvey's abstract interludes and atmospherics are reminiscent of (surprise, surprise) Radiohead's: "Even the buzzing distortion is focused and spare, mounted the way a collector hangs a precious Japanese sword." (Uh Huh Her.)

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Soul Plane (MGM). Set on a tricked-out purple jumbo jet run by the world's only "urban" airline, this Airplane knock-off makes its predecessor "seem as demure as a vintage drawing-room comedy," says the New York Times. Rappers Snoop Dogg and Method Man are in the cockpit—"giving new meaning to the idea of a mile-high club"—and back in the Low Class compartment, Tom Arnold and family—aka the Hunkees—are the only white passengers. In between, there's "a pimped-out microcosm of black stereotypes," according to Entertainment Weekly. In fact, "stereotypes are more than just a cheap source of prefabricated gags," says the Onion; they're "the air the film breathes, its reason for being." The Chicago Tribune isn't sure whether Soul Plane is "more offensive to whites or blacks," but the Boston Globe has no doubts: The joke "is that when black people do for themselves, they do shoddily. Why is that funny?" (Buy tickets to Soul Plane.)

Tony Awards. The Tony Awards traditionally offer theater critics an opportunity to moan about how terrible the season was. This year's first rant came from New York Times public editor Daniel Okrent, who decries the paper's obligatory coverage of the Tonys, trashing the awards themselves as "artistically meaningless, blatantly commercial, shamefully exclusionary and culturally corrosive," because they're open only to Broadway shows. (Variety called Okrent "naïve.") Then Times chief critic Ben Brantley compared the year's offerings to "last night's bath water—tepid, stagnant and definitely used before." Other critics seem to feel compelled to muster a defense. Newsday contends that the season was "far from disastrous" and the New York Daily News calls it "strong." Innocent out-of-towners were even more positive: The Seattle Times was "struck by the variety and intensity" of Broadway's best, and the Boston Globe thinks that works by Sondheim, Kushner, and Stoppard running concurrently make Broadway a "virtual treasure trove" of work with "the capacity to change how one looks at the world."

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Father Joe: The Man Who Saved My Soul, by Tony Hendra (Random House). The British humorist and Monty Python/National Lampoon alumnus "might just be the most interesting—and unlikely—mystic you've never heard of," says the Chicago Sun-Times. Father Joe chronicles Hendra's struggles with the trappings of fame, and his lifelong relationship with a reclusive British priest who offered spiritual guidance. The Oregonian admires Hendra's "exquisite prose —beautiful and lyrical, incisive and tender, funny and bittersweet," and the Philadelphia Inquirer says the book is "so funny at times that you wonder if you'll ever get through it for laughing." In the New York Times, Andrew Sullivan asserts that Father Joe"belongs in the first tier of spiritual memoirs ever written" (mainly, it seems, because Hendra is a lefty who's finally seen the light, literally). The Washington Post has a caustic rejoinder: "It is a book for men who think of themselves as trapped, misunderstood geniuses, so it should sell well." (Buy Father Joe.)

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Pushkin and the Queen of Spades, by Alice Randall (Houghton Mifflin). After rewriting Gone With the Wind from a black perspective with 2001's controversial The Wind Done Gone, Randall turns to the Russian novelist Pushkin, who is the obsession of this book's lead character, a black female academic incensed at her son for taking a white girlfriend. Most of the novel consists of the academic's discursive rantings on race and identity, which alternately repel and mesmerize critics. "It's hard to stay interested in this mean woman," protests the San Francisco Chronicle; "she brags and blames, complains and wants everything her way." The novel poses interesting questions, says the New York Times, but is "ill-equipped" to answer them; Randall's prose "veers drunkenly from the poetic to the analytical to the biographical." Still, the Seattle Times' "harangue" is the Los Angeles Times' "impassioned aria"—it calls Pushkin and the Queen of Spades"operatic" and "gutsy." And the Washington Post, inspired by the book's "urgency," dismisses formal quibbling to argue that this is "Notes From the Underground—black Mama-style." (Buy Pushkin and the Queen of Spades.)

The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies and Nations, by James Surowiecki (Doubleday). TheNew Yorker financial columnist's first book treats a fashionable theme: the superiority of bottom-up group knowledge over top-down individual authority. Surowiecki "has a knack for translating the most algebraic of research papers into bright expository prose," says the New York Times, and the book is packed with "dozens of illuminating anecdotes and case studies," adds Entertainment Weekly. But many reviewers aren't quite ready to accept his thesis.A skeptical Newsday wants "more details," and the Wall Street Journal sticks up for financial experts, debunking one of the book's examples: When the Challenger shuttle exploded, the stock price of the company that ultimately proved to be at fault immediately plummeted; Surowiecki says the sell-off demonstrates the wisdom of crowds, but the Journal,defending its turf, sees it as an example of the experts getting it right. Nevertheless, the Christian Science Monitor appreciates the book's "whiff of populism," saying "there's something hopeful about Surowiecki's grand idea." (BuyThe Wisdom of Crowds.)

Ben Williams writes "Summary Judgment" forSlate.