Highlights from the week in criticism.

Highlights from the week in criticism.
Sept. 3 2004 1:43 PM

Berserk for Björk

Warm praise for Icelandic pop star's a cappellaalbum.

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Medulla, by Björk (Elektra/Aslyum). For her latest trick—Björk goes a cappella. The abstract, multi-tracked vocals on Medulla aren't exactly doo-wop, though. One song could be "Bobby McFerrin in the wake of an alien abduction," says the Boston Globe; another "sounds like a cat coughing up a hairball," according to the New York Sun. Nonetheless, critics aren't put off: As Pitchfork muses, "Björk's emotional impact seems dependent on one's fascination with her," and most do seem awed by her sublimity. "She encompasses multitudes; her persona can be as large as a planet or a galaxy," raves Jon Pareles in the New York Times (who reveals an interesting theory on how "austerity rules" in modern music). Also lost in music is Rolling Stone, happily drowning in a "heavenly orgy of angelic choirs and gigabytes of technology." The Village Voice stays relatively grounded, calling Medulla's songs "polygraph poems, measuring the biofeedback of creation and desire." ( Medulla.)

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Happy People/U Saved Me, by R. Kelly (Jive). The R&B singer "separates church and state" on this two-disc set: One CD is party tunes; the other is devoted to gospel-tinged spirituality. Critics prefer the upbeat collection—it deploys "the light artillery of old-school R&B" to create an "intoxicating, grin-inducing, body-moving, spirit-lifting effervescence," says the Los Angeles Times—but they can't quite forget the specter of Kelly's legal woes. The Washington Post sees an image makeover in progress ("When life takes a nose dive, make the music positive. Relentlessly so"), while Rolling Stone hears "a professional smoothie at work"—"slick, insinuating and ultimately a little tepid." The penitent pleading on U Saved Me convinces no one. Entertainment Weekly yawns that it "gets bogged down in one indistinct, syrup-doused ballad after another"; the Boston Globe adds that Kelly's straightforward writing style "sounds as if God has a drive-through express service window." (Happy People/U Saved Me.)

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Vanity Fair (Focus Features). Thackeray gets a feminist, Indian-accented overhaul in Mira Nair's adaptation of Vanity Fair. The main debate swirls around Reese Witherspoon's portrayal of the scheming heroine, Becky: The Philadelphia Inquirer applauds "the spiritual godmother of Scarlett O'Hara and Daisy Buchanan (not to mention Liz Taylor and J. Lo)," but other critics, who seem to have spent all summer with their noses in Thackeray's 900-page tome, complain she's been declawed. This Becky is "about as formidable as an aspiring trophy wife on a daytime soap," scoffs the New York Times; "It's as if Shakespeare had put Hamlet on Prozac," laments the Boston Globe. Nair's visual stew of cultures also splits reviewers. The Washington Post thinks the film is "positively alight with the flavors of India," but Entertainment Weekly says "there's visual luster, but there's no real lust" in scenes "suitable for a photo spread in that other Vanity Fair, the one that sits on coffee tables." (Read David Edelstein's review.) (Buy tickets to Vanity Fair.)

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Wicker Park (MGM). This erotic thriller is "proof that the scrambled narrative of The Sixth Sense and 21 Grams has finally lapsed into self-parody," says the San Jose Mercury News. Josh Hartnett, Diane Kruger, and Rose Byrne follow each other obsessively around Chicago in a "jet-lag blur" of fragmented camerawork that has critics reeling woozily. The Chicago Tribune wails, "watching it makes you feel queasy," and the Los Angeles Times adds, "There are even moments when flashbacks seem to be taking place within flashbacks." But the biggest problem is the "extremely contrived" plot, half of which "could have been eliminated if only one of these idiots had call waiting," snorts the Miami Herald. The characters spend so much time spying on one another that Wicker Park"plays out more like a stalker tutorial" than a romance, carps the Philadelphia Inquirer. (Buy tickets to Wicker Park.)

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The 9/11 Commission Report (Norton). Critics agree that strong narrative and effective use of literary devices make this government report "a page-turner." They just can't decide what genre it is. Most pick thriller: Carlin Romano calls it "an airport read, worthy of Tom Clancy," and Time says "it all unfolds like an episode of CSI." But the Washington Post's Philip Kennicott thinks the style is "personal confessional"—though a cliché for memoirists, here it "works with bracing power." There are weaknesses, however: "The reader wants to understand the motivation of the characters," says David Ignatius in the Post, but the terrorists remain "opaque." N+1, which compiled a useful index, adds that the language "turns the terrorists into imaginative technicians." As for the commission's recommendations, Romano says they exude a "spirit of pragmatism," but Richard Posner finds fatalism more appropriate, since it's difficult to prevent another attack. Actually admitting that, however, "would be a real downer—even a tad un-American." (The 9/11 Commission Report.)

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Star: A Novel, by Pamela Anderson (Atria). "Kafka had his fantastical cockroach, but that was kind of weird," says the Washington Post. In this thinly disguised roman à clef, Pamela Anderson "employs similar technique, but better, bestowing upon Star's mammary glands an animate independence." But Kafka's just for starters: In the New York Post, Choire Sicha implausibly calls Anderson "the Jean-Paul Sartre of the tabloid generation," claiming Star allows her to "explicate her philosophy of libidinous self-acceptance and self-esteem through commerce." Or is it more "Pollyanna-in-Hollywood"? The Toronto Star's disappointed reviewer thinks "the forced adorableness of the heroine" betrays the "steely will" that propelled Anderson to fame. Still, continues the Star, the book "redeems itself by virtue of a few staggering sex scenes." In that sense, adds St. Louis Today, it's "essentially a Danielle Steel novel without all the silly stuff about feelings and relationships." (Star: A Novel.)

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How To Make Love Like a Porn Star, by Jenna Jameson with Neil Strauss (Regan Books). This reigning porn star's will is no less steely than Anderson's, judging by Steve Almond's Nerve review of this "Horatio Alger story": Apparently, the teenage Jameson was not "content simply to strip. She wants to be the best stripper ever." Her memoir is "more engaging" than Star because it's "a tale of raw ambition (and positively packed with photos)," says the New York Sun. But don't get any ideas: It's "certainly not" the graphic sex scenes that turn on the Sun, but rather the "fascinating" behind-the-scenes look at strip clubs. Salon's Charles Taylor finds intellectual appeal in the way Jameson "upsets the easy assumptions of both sides in the debate about whether porn is degrading (damn straight it can be, she says) or empowering (ditto)." The Hartford Courant does sound slightly unsettled: It calls the book "horrifying, gripping, sexy and pathetic." (How To Make Love Like a Porn Star.)

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Persepolis 2, by Marjane Satrapi (Pantheon). Comics maintain critical momentum with the second volume of this much-acclaimed memoir, which portrays the author's adolescence in Vienna and subsequent return to Iran in "blunt black-and-white graphics that evoke Persian-style miniatures." Everybody relates to Satrapi's "stubborn and subversive streak," which the Fort Worth Star-Telegram says makes her the "opposite of every stereotype of the Iranian woman." Her "wildly charming" voice feels "like a letter from a friend, in this case a wonderful friend," gushes Luc Sante in the New York Times, while Time says her teen punk defiance is "moving and universal." But although Satrapi "can walk proud next to Allen Ginsberg or Janis Joplin," according to the Los Angeles Times, her rebellion is not Western. Rather than sexual freedom or democracy, it's about "being able to walk and speak freely in the world." (Persepolis 2.)

Photo of Vincent Gallo

Roger Ebert and Vincent Gallo. Ebert's latest column in the Chicago Sun-Times recounts his in-person meeting with Gallo to finally bury the hatchet. (Back in 2003, the director put a cancer curse on the critic after he called The Brown Bunny the worst film in the history of the Cannes festival—Ebert actually got cancer.) The pair cleared up the details of their spat—"The atmosphere lightened after he explained he had never wished colon cancer on me in the first place. He was misquoted. He actually specified prostate cancer"—and bonded over nutritional treatments. Sounds like Ebert will be taking no chances with his re-review of the film, though: "This new version, I said, is a lot shorter, and in my opinion, a lot better."

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