Highlights from the week in criticism.

Highlights from the week in criticism.
Aug. 20 2004 12:56 PM

Revisiting Deliverance

Without a Paddle and Mean Creek update the 1970s classic—for better or for worse.

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Without a Paddle (Paramount). More like "without a rudder," says the Los Angeles Times. This "stylistically schizophrenic" comedy about three buddies (Seth Green, Matthew Lillard, and Dax Shepard) celebrating the end of their 20s with a harebrained excursion into the Oregon wilderness blends toilet humor and male bonding like "the Hardy Boys with potty mouths," according to the Chicago Tribune. And then there's the way the film "plays homophobia for laughs" (Philadelphia Inquirer)—the New York Times finds this "loathsome."Newsday says it all adds up to "Deliverance Lite" (complete with a Burt Reynolds cameo), which has LA Weekly sorrowfully worrying that all the '70s classic "has meant to the culture is the association of buddies on a camping trip with man-rape." The Onion offers some advice: Reynolds' "good-natured but embarrassing performance should warn his young co-stars where a career full of choices like Without a Paddle inevitably leads." (Buy tickets to Without a Paddle.)

Mean Creek (Paramount). Without a Paddle's serious twin—a "junior-grade Deliverance," according to the Wall Street Journal—follows a group of teenagers who lure the local bully onto another Oregon river in order to teach him a lesson. Mean Creek "shows enormous perception about the Darwinian dynamics of early adolescence," praises the Onion, and although critics find its insights overly familiar, most are impressed by Jacob Aaron Estes' sensitive direction and the actors' strong performances. Josh Peck, who plays the bully, gets particular kudos—Entertainment Weekly says he carries off "the challenge of portraying ugliness and vulnerability" with "aplomb." Estes, meanwhile, scores points with Variety for "rarely making people or situations out to be as black or white as he so easily might have." The film has a "combination of realism and fretful moral inquiry" that's best suited to "young teenagers who devour young-adult fiction," concludes A.O. Scott. (Buy tickets to Mean Creek.)

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Bright Young Things (ThinkFilm). British comedian and novelist Stephen Fry's adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's Vile Bodies is "a movie that would make Paris Hilton feel at home." Set amid a cynical group of hard-partying Brits on the eve of World War II, Bright Young Things"prompts us to recognize this world as a precursor to our own bottom-feeding one," says Peter Rainier: "Only the names have changed." Waugh fans are effusive. This "is just how I'd always imagined one of my favorite comic novels should look and sound," applauds Slate's David Edelstein, while A.O. Scott thinks the "dash and vigor" of Fry's "headlong style helps rescue the movie from the deadly trap of antiquarianism." (He also claims that Bret Easton Ellis is, "like it or not, Waugh's legitimate American heir.") More sentimental types, however, find the film hollow: Variety complains that it "lacks a significant emotional undertow to make it a truly involving—rather than simply voyeuristic experience."(Buy tickets to Bright Young Things.)

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Exorcist: The Beginning (Warner Bros). In the time-honored studio signal for a really bad movie, Exorcist: the Beginning wasn't screened for critics in advance. Early reports from Internet reviewers are scathing: About.com calls it the "Worst Movie of 2004,"Efilmcritic says it's "a transparent little leech of a movie," and Film Freak Central thinks a Holocaust subplot combined with gory effects take it over the top and "into the territory of cinema as audience punishment." As for the shocks, nobody's impressed. Director Renny Harlin's "idea of creating an ambiance of terror consists solely of inundating us with one cheap scare after another," snorts Reel Film Reviews, and Wafflemovies.com has yawns at them all—"the devil is drawing from the same bag of tricks we have seen before." "Mostly," concludes Groucho Reviews, "Exorcist: The Beginning just lies around waiting for its own afterlife on cable and video shelves." (Buy tickets to Exorcist: The Beginning.)

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Snow, by Orhan Pamuk (Knopf). This timely novel, which revolves around a series of suicides among Islamic girls forbidden to wear head scarves to their secularist school, is "not only an engrossing feat of tale-spinning, but essential reading for our times," says Margaret Atwood in the New York Times Book Review. (She also makes an intriguing case for the book as part of "a genre called the Male Labyrinth Novel.") Everyone praises Pamuk's ability to see both sides of the controversy: His characters "are no monsters but ordinary human beings who actually have much more in common than they would wish to acknowledge," according to the Los Angeles Times. Britain's Daily Telegraph is particularly impressed by the Turkish writer's portrayal of the Islamists, comparing it to "meeting the possessed anarchists in Dostoevsky," and concluding that his "high artistry and fierce politics take our minds further into the age's crisis than any commentator could." (Snow.)

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Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell (Random House). "Time moves like a concertina, not an arrow" (Time) in this elaborately structured novel, which switches between past, present, and future across six distinct yet interconnected stories. Inevitably, some reviewers find Cloud Atlas too tricksy: Entertainment Weekly calls it "mostly gimmicky" and Time's Pico Iyer says, "[T]he whole of Cloud Atlas never quite lives up to its parts." But just as many think that Mitchell's energetic prose and narrative sweep hold the book together. Cloud Atlas "has the breezy air of a sophisticated Marx Brothers movie," says Newsday: "images, characters and texts appear and disappear throughout its pages with sometimes heart-stopping rhythmic precision." And far from being arbitrary, the structure "enacts a theory of history that's part of the novel's core meaning," enthuses Adam Begley in the New York Observer; "what seemed at first mere cleverness begins to look like wisdom." ( Cloud Atlas.)

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Kill Your Idols, edited by Jim DeRogatis and Carmél Carrillo (Barricade Books). "Guaranteed to infuriate any boomer rock fan" (Entertainment Weekly), Kill Your Idols compiles attacks on 34 albums from the Rolling Stone-approved rock canon. Most reviewers agree that it's a highly mixed bag. The Village Voice calls it both "fun" and "frustrating," and the Los Angeles Times adds that it's "sometimes incisive, occasionally enraged and other times infuriatingly muddle-headed." And everyone wonders why Paul McCartney's Ram was included in the book, since no one's ever pretended to like it. (On Amazon, card-carrying boomer rock critic Dave Marsh claims that "older rock critics NEVER liked The Best of the Doors, Dark Side of the Moon, Ram, and Sgt. Pepper's," either. The reviews' wildly varying quality prompts the National Review to comment, "Perhaps the punk ethos of DIY—do-it-yourself—shouldn't apply to editing." More tellingly, Seattle Weekly points out that most of the writers "take aim at their targets by unfavorably comparing them to other canonical albums." (Buy Kill Your Idols.)

A Carnivore's Inquiry, by Sabina Murray (Grove Press). This "highfalutin combo of Psycho and The Silence of the Lambs" stars a college dropout who picks up a series of men (who all wind up dead) on a road trip while telling tales of cannibalism throughout history. Some critics love the narrator—"reptilian and creepy as she is," says the Miami Herald, she's "also an engaging observer and often drolly funny"—but all find the book contrived and its conclusion predictable. Although the Detroit Free Press thinks the cannibalism stories are "interesting, polished, grisly little gems," the Village Voice says the "motif loses its savor with endless repetition," and the novel becomes "as much farce as thriller." Michiko Kakutani, who knows from carnivores, dismisses "a sensationalistic plot that appeals to the reader's cheapest, most voyeuristic instincts"—sounds good!—adding that "most of the story's morals are obvious and simplistic to the point of being inane." (A Carnivore's Inquiry.)

TODAY IN SLATE

Foreigners

More Than Scottish Pride

Scotland’s referendum isn’t about nationalism. It’s about a system that failed, and a new generation looking to take a chance on itself. 

What Charles Barkley Gets Wrong About Corporal Punishment and Black Culture

Why Greenland’s “Dark Snow” Should Worry You

Three Talented Actresses in Three Terrible New Shows

Why Do Some People See the Virgin Mary in Grilled Cheese?

The science that explains the human need to find meaning in coincidences.

Jurisprudence

Happy Constitution Day!

Too bad it’s almost certainly unconstitutional.

Is It Worth Paying Full Price for the iPhone 6 to Keep Your Unlimited Data Plan? We Crunch the Numbers.

What to Do if You Literally Get a Bug in Your Ear

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