Highlights from the week in criticism.

Highlights from the week in criticism.
July 9 2004 4:04 PM

Metallica Confronts Its Demons

And critics enjoy watching.

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Metallica: Some Kind of Monster (IFC). It sounds like Spinal Tap: Obscenely rich metal band, facing midlife crisis, calls in $40,000-a-month therapist to help mediate its internal disputes and films the whole thing. But critics are taking Some Kind of Monster very, very seriously: The New York Times' A.O. Scott solemnly dubs it "a psychodrama of novelistic intricacy and epic scope"; the Onion's Nathan Rabin says it "offers a refreshingly nuanced, multi-dimensional take on therapy"; and Entertainment Weekly's Owen Gleiberman thinks it's a "fascinating and emotional tale of rock and its heroes growing up yet trying, against the odds, to stay genuine." Fortunately, Village Voice music editor Chuck Eddy is here to cut through the pretense, dismissing the film as "a two-and-a-half-hour puff piece about how 'important' Metallica are and, worse, how much 'integrity' they have." He also points out that "the whole idea that we're supposed to care about rock stars as people … is ridiculous." (Buy tickets to Some Kind of Monster.)

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King Arthur (Touchstone). Hollywood's latest historical epic claims to strip away the myth from the Knights of the Round Table: In practice, this means a dour king (Clive Owen), "who seems more like a drill instructor," and a "killing machine" Guinevere (Keira Knightley) "attired in indigo paint and a chain-mail bra."The Boston Globe calls the film is "a solid, somber, rousing piece of studio zirconium," and fans point to Knightley's spirited performance—she's a "blood-drenched pagan Tinker Bell, a pixie sprite with a battle ax," burbles the Washington Post. But most critics aren't convinced by King Arthur's revisionism. "The gritty faux realism wears itself out quickly," says New York: "You've seen one lancing, you've seen them all." "Sometimes legends resonate for good reason," adds Salon. "Do we really need to know the true Hollywood backstory of King Arthur?" (Read David Edelstein's review.) (Buy tickets to King Arthur.)

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Anchorman (DreamWorks). Sporting a "big-hair-and-mustache combination straight from the era of Mark Spitz, Burt Reynolds and old-time porn flicks" (Washington Post), Will Ferrell stars as a sexist '70s San Diego news anchor in this comedy. There's a patina of feminism courtesy of Christina Applegate as an ambitious newswoman, but essentially Anchorman"plays like an extended skit with bits of improvisation," says the Hollywood Reporter. The film serves up "gag after gag, at least a few of which involve jazz flute" (Onion), and for the Dallas Observer, the lack of coherence is the point of the movie—"at its best it plays like modern-day Marx Brothers in which every single thing that happens makes no sense and serves no purpose." But more critics agree with the Miami Herald's assessment: "a lazy, self-satisfied piece of work." (Read David Edelstein's review.) (Buy tickets to Anchorman.)

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Sleepover (MGM). In a year full of films working the high-school-geeks-vs.-in-crowd formula, Sleepover seems to be the one that finally sends critics over the edge. "However polarized American political life is today, it's a smidgen less so than Hollywood's binary vision of teens, where there are two extremes and no undecideds," snaps the Philadelphia Inquirer. Sleepover"is probably not evil incarnate," admits the Miami Herald reluctantly, "but it's so irritating you wish it—and just about everyone in it—would just shut up and get out of your room."Entertainment Weekly is even less forgiving: "[T]he only thing that could redeem this sour patch of candy-coated crud would be a final shot of Earth exploding." (Buy tickets to Sleepover.)

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Documentaries. After Fahrenheit 9/11's box-office success, everyone has an angle on the "turning point in the acceptance of documentaries" (New York Times). An oft-repeated line is that "documentaries are the talk radio of the left"—don't look now: here comes the "conservative Cannes"—but comparisons to reality TV are equally popular. Documentarians think reality TV "sends people screaming from their homes in search of good entertainment" (Philadelphia Inquirer); the Associated Press counters that it's made moviegoers "hungry for stories of real people," and New York magazine wonders if Michael Moore is "the new Mark Burnett"—his "whimsical" editing tactics are "immediately recognizable to any viewer of reality TV." Looking at the big picture, the Denver Post thinks the culture wars are turning into "pop-culture wars": The new game is to "turn ideology into a product and make everybody pay for it." (Read David Edelstein's review of Fahrenheit 9/11 and Christopher Hitchens' critique of it.)

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Dylan's Visions of Sin, by Christopher Ricks (Ecco). When "the world's leading critic of poetry in English" compares Bob Dylan to the entire verse canon, it's an "unprecedented" event, says the British Spectator. Thankfully, however, critics don't obsess over whether Dylan deserves Keats' company; instead, they knock Ricks for ignoring American popular music. Trying to make Dylan into a poet, rather than a songwriter, "snubs the very rock style he rebuilt around his quirks," argues Tim Riley in Slate, and the Chronicle of Higher Education complains that Ricks links Dylan to "books he hasn't necessarily read." So what, says Jonathan Lethem, a rare author arguing for critical autonomy—Ricks is trying "to forge a post-biographical context for Dylan's art." Ricks himself counters that his subject "is affinity, not influence," but the New Criterion snorts at his attempt to prove Dylan's affinity with John Donne: "[E]ven not-so-great minds tend to use the same words when welcoming a naked woman into their beds." (Dylan's Visions of Sin.)

William Logan.The gentle art of poetry has been somewhat overlooked in the snark wars, but the New Criterion redresses the balance in its current letters pages, where Franz Wright, the 2004 Pulitzer Prize winner for poetry, and the critic William Logan (aka "the most hated man in American poetry") have at it. The brawl started when a Logan review called Wright's poems "rancid and repetitive," "the Hallmark cards of the damned," and the author himself a "fragile, self-obsessed" "sad-sack punk." Wright (not the first Pulitzer winner offended by Logan) wrote the Criterion to brand the critic a "grotesquely mean-spirited mediocrity" and warned Logan that, should their paths cross, "I will not be able to resist giving you the crippling beating you so clearly masochistically desire." Logan's response: "I will come and go as I please, and would be glad to provide him with an itinerary."

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How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization, by Franklin Foer (HarperCollins). Writing "as if Nick Hornby" had "commandeered Tom Friedman's laptop,"New Republic editor Foer argues that soccer fandom expresses cultural tensions that reflect the impact of globalization and, at its best, guides us toward a more humane global order. Everybody enjoys reading about soccer's role in various sectarian conflicts—the book "bristles with anecdotes that are almost impossible to believe," says Joe Queenan in the New York Times Book Review—but almost nobody buys his big theory. (Actually, says the Boston Globe, he doesn't really have one: "The book is more a series of small provocations worth pondering.") Newsday pours cold water on Foer's optimism, arguing that he "overintellectualizes the sport and inflates its importance," while the New York Times finds his reporting "sobering," rather than inspiring: The ideal of globalization "is, for now, pure fantasy, particularly when there are games to be won." (In Slate, Daniel Gross argues that soccer is more American than baseball.) (Full disclosure: Franklin Foer once worked for Slate.) ( How Soccer Explains the World.)

Ben Williams writes "Summary Judgment" forSlate.

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