Highlights from the week in criticism.

Highlights from the week in criticism.
Aug. 13 2004 3:28 PM

Julie Andrews Made Them Cry

But is that reason enough to see The Princess Diaries 2?

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The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement (Buena Vista). The main reason to catch this sequel is a brief song from Julie Andrews, the first since throat surgery ruined her voice in 1997. It "made at least three hard-hearted movie critics I know moist-eyed," says the Philadelphia Inquirer's Carrie Rickey. As for the rest of the film, in which Anne Hathaway must marry within 30 days in order to become queen of the mythical European country Genovia, "the only things missing are a script, a pulse, and a reason why," snaps the Boston Globe. Still, there's always the Washington Post's Steven Hunter (already a contender for nuttiest movie critic out there), who courageously plunges off the deep end this week, assuming the perspective of a hyperactive 13-year-old-girl: "Where others hath a way, Anne hath a smile that would melt a vault door and even the hearts of all save the most jaded, twisted, self-infatuated experts on, like, nothing!" (Buy tickets to The Princess Diaries 2.)

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We Don't Live Here Anymore (Warner). This examination of intricate infidelities in a small New England college town is "a heavy dose of marital angst," says Peter Rainier—"even Ingmar Bergman might have blanched at it." But marital angst is catnip for critics, and they lap up the film's two tortured couples. The performances "go to 11," says the Onion, and everyone has a different favorite: LA Weekly calls Six Feet Under's Peter Krause "a paragon of seductive charisma, feeding on itself"; J. Hoberman thinks Naomi Watts "projects a fragility that might be made of tempered steel"; and A.O. Scott says Mark Ruffalo's rare "willingness to appear weak" allows him to portray "a familiar variety of real, contemporary American man." It's all too '70s for the Los Angeles Times' Carina Chocano, though (the screenplay was adapted decades ago): "The particular state of connubial despair depicted feels like a sociological relic." (Read David Edelstein's review in Slate.) (Buy tickets to We Don't Live Here Anymore.)

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Alien vs. Predator (Fox). Studios didn't screen this showdown between legendary movie monsters to critics before opening, which is always an ominous sign. But a few Internet critics caught early showings. Film Freak Central says Alien vs. Predator is no Freddy vs. Jason: It "lacks energy, momentum, logic, tension, fear, and a readable script."Efilmcritic proves that no matter how fantastic a movie's premise is, critics will always find a way to complain that it's not realistic—it calls the portrayal of the aliens as bad guys "more than a little unfair": "Aliens are not evil; they are a violent race of intelligent creatures who simply behave as their DNA commands. They're like sharks." For Horror.com, the problem is simple: "[T]he deaths are mostly bloodless." Even "the creature effects are strictly run of the mill," according to One Guys' Opinion: "Kramer Vs. Kramer was more terrifying." (Buy tickets to Alien vs. Predator.)

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Six Feet Under (HBO). Critics are still talking about July's "That's My Dog" episode, in which David was hijacked, forced to smoke crack, and tortured by a hitchhiker. After it aired, the New York Post called it "an exercise in random, over-the-top violence," and the Dallas Morning News lamented that it neared "jump-the-shark territory." Making an ambiguous defense were Emily Nussbaum, who felt simultaneously "betrayed" and "thrilled" by the show's willingness to "risk our loyalty in the name of something new," and Heather Havrilesky, who "sort of enjoyed it all in a sick way." Havrilesky thought the message was that life kicks you when you're down, but for Dale Peck, who presented a typically massive indictment (minus the cheap shots!) of series creator Alan Ball in this week's New York Observer, the message was that Hollywood—and American society—hate gay people. Connecting the dots with Ball's American Beauty, Peck called both scripts "masturbatory fantasies for gay bashers everywhere." 

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Checkpoint, by Nicholson Baker (Knopf). Many critics treat the Vox author's insta-controversy about a conversation between two leftist friends (one of whom wants to kill the president) as a political pamphlet, rather than fiction. The Wall Street Journal derides it as "a sick stunt, executed without flair"; Entertainment Weekly rages against a "blunt, plotless, obscenity-laden screed"; and Leon Wieseltier condemns "this scummy little book" as "wild talk," worrying that American liberalism "may be losing its head." (Wieseltier's critique also prompts more fuming in blogland against the New York Times Book Review.) Those who do treat Checkpoint as fiction, like the Washington Post's Jennifer Howard and the Los Angeles Times' P.J. O'Rourke, pick up on its humor, comparing it to Waiting for Godot. But they disagree on its intent: She thinks it's "a cathartic amusement," while he says it's about "getting out the vote." For the AP, the assassination fantasies are "merely a plot device"—the real point is the "extended indictment" of President Bush. (Read Timothy Noah's review.) (Buy Checkpoint.)

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Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire, by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri (Penguin Press). This follow-up to the academic hit Empire also prompts presidential assassination fantasies, if only in the ironic mind of Edward Rothstein, who compares Multitude's effect to the mind control used in The Manchurian Candidate. Both film and book are "melodramas about the evils of capital and the dangers of American power," he muses in the New York Times. (Assassination chic is in the air, says New York.) Multitude's reception is no less hostile than Checkpoint's: Critics call its celebration of self-organizing networks as a means of resisting globalization "utter fantasy" (Time), "vapid and deeply irresponsible" (New York Sun), and "almost totalitarian" (Rothstein). The New York Times Book Review really set Hardt and Negri up, though, assigning the book to noted globalization fan Francis Fukuyama. Not surprisingly, he thinks they have it all backward: "powerlessness and poverty in today's world are due not to the excessive power of nation-states, but to their weakness." ( Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire.)

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Borges: A Life, by Edwin Williamson (Viking). "It's almost odd to think of Jorge Luis Borges having a personal life," says the Wall Street Journal. But this biography, which draws upon much new material, not only chronicles Borges' life, it uses psychoanalytic theory to connect it to his work. For some critics, the method is depressingly reductive. "Where Borges thinks, Williamson shrinks," snipes the San Francisco Chronicle, while Michael Dirda sadly concludes that Borges "was essentially a wimp, probably impotent, certainly indecisive and weak-willed, thoroughly self-pitying, surprisingly vindictive and often cowardly." Christopher Hitchens' memories of the few days he spent with the great man—"I felt as if I had been entrusted with a unique coin or ancient palimpsest or precious astrolabe"—are unaffected, though: He says the book is "altogether first-rate." Maybe it's the discussion of Borges' political evolution, which the Miami Herald calls "topnotch." (Borges: A Life.)

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Dark Voyage, by Alan Furst (Random House). This World War II tale of a Dutch freighter roaming the seas on undercover missions is part of a nameless series that's "the greatest body of work by any espionage novelist—ever," says the San Jose Mercury News. Other critics won't go that far—Furst is "not quite in the category of Le Carré," says the Seattle Times—but all agree that he's a cut above his genre peers. The difference, says the San Francisco Chronicle, is "like that, say, between creamery butter and discount margarine"—Furst's "meticulous research blended with a deep sense of character" and his "gracious and unobtrusive" prose style set him apart. His "streamlined clarity" is "extraordinary," agrees Janet Maslin: Dark Voyage reads like "vintage cinema already." This is a "serious writer," concludes Jonathan Yardley, who reminds us that "exceptionally good American writing is being done in what the literati dismiss as 'popular' fiction." (Dark Voyage.)

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