Highlights from the week in criticism.

Highlights from the week in criticism.
Aug. 27 2004 3:43 PM

Shock Treatment

The anticlimactic release of The Brown Bunny.

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The Brown Bunny (Wellspring Media). After mass controversy at Cannes, Vincent Gallo's curse on Roger Ebert, and a giant blow-job billboard on Sunset Boulevard, most critics are eager to downplay Brown Bunny's shock value. "Neither an atrocity nor a revelation," according to Manohla Dargis, it's simply "a very watchable, often beautiful-looking attempt" to re-create the aimless mood of early '70s road movies. (Significant editing has helped immensely, everyone agrees.) If it "were a painting, it would be a blue rhombus … at the Pompidou Center," muses the Los Angeles Times' Carina Chocano. Ebert's lying low so far, but there are still plenty of Gallo-haters—he "puts the 'self' into 'self-indulgent,' " spits the Hollywood Reporter. Others are willing to acknowledge his talent: He "truly is searching for some sort of celluloid redemption," says J. Hoberman. Only Dargis spares much thought for Chloё Sevigny, who administers the film's climax: "[S]he may be nuts, but she's also unforgettable." (Buy tickets to The Brown Bunny.)

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Anacondas: The Hunt for the Blood Orchid (Screen Gems). Anacondas"boasts more writers than snake victims—never a good sign," points out the Miami Herald. Packed with no-name actors trekking through the jungles of Borneo, the film "taunts us with minimal gore," complains the Dallas Observer. As for the snakes, mocks L.A. Weekly, they're "reminiscent of the Jurassic Park dinosaurs, only without the personality." Still, while everybody misses the "enjoyably outlandish hiss" (Entertainment Weekly) of the first Anacondas, a surprising number of critics think the sequel "gets its little job done effectively," as Dave Kehr puts it, "providing some small-scale laughs and chills for the late summer season." And compared to other August sequels, Alien vs. Predator and Exorcist: The Beginning, "it actually feels refreshing," says the Dallas Morning News—"the way a hot blast of car exhaust seems like a step up after you've been trapped in a sewer for two weeks." (Buy tickets to Anacondas.)

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Suspect Zero (Paramount). Ben Kingsley does his "bulgy-eyed, teeth-gnashing" act as a killer of serial killers while Aaron Eckhart is the FBI agent who has too much in common with him in this "serial-killer smoothie" (Philadelphia Inquirer). Suspect Zero blends so many genre clichés, it "could almost stand as a campy spoof," says the Seattle Post-Intelligencer: "National Lampoon Goes to the Crime Scene." (Manohla Dargis hopes it will "put a permanent kibosh on this tediously overworked crime subgenre," but critics said that about Taking Lives, too.) "It's not easy to make a thriller that's both incredibly convoluted and intensely boring," sighs TV Guide, but director E. Elias Merhige has managed it: His "shock-cuts" and "filters" make the action play "as if it were in code," says the Chicago Tribune. "The truth," analyzes Entertainment Weekly's Lisa Schwarzbaum, is that "the freakiness kinda turns the director on." (Buy tickets to Suspect Zero.)

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John Kerry on The Daily Show. If you didn't tune in to Kerry's crucial visit with Jon Stewart, "you didn't really miss much," informed the Chicago Tribune—"except the part where Kerry took up a microphone and started freestyling over a 50 Cent song." Of course, Kerry actually did very little of interest on the show, which was just fine with fearful critics. "The senator's main accomplishment was that he looked relaxed," said Howard Kurtz, and the New Republic rationalized furiously, praising "his ability to speak in a more or less comprehensible manner." High praise indeed. Slate's Dana Stevens, on the other hand, took the gloves off, pointing out that "Kerry's charisma was less than zero: It was negative. He was a charm vacuum, forced to actually borrow mojo from audience members."

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Birds Without Wings, by Louis De Bernières (Knopf). The "far more ambitious" follow-up to Corelli's Mandolin is an epic account of the creation of modern Turkey as experienced by the inhabitants of an obscure coastal village. This time De Bernières' subject is war, not love: It makes him "seethe with fury and contempt," says the Los Angeles Times, and "only those with the strongest of stomachs will be able to read his horrifyingly brilliant account of trench warfare." (The San Francisco Chronicle must be made of sterner stuff because it's not impressed by the battle scenes: "The intimate domestic vignettes come to life in a way that the big set pieces don't." The Miami Herald is swept away, calling the book "violent, heart-breaking yet resplendent"—not to mention "breathtaking" and "sorrowful" (and "unerring and indelible"). Bah humbug, counters the New York Sun: De Bernières "writes in a cliched peasant diction," and this is "a dull and patronizing book." (Birds Without Wings.)

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Colors Insulting to Nature, by Cintra Wilson (Fourth Estate). The Salon columnist's assault on celebrity culture continues with this satirical novel about a teen girl's traumatic quest for fame. Everyone agrees Wilson knows her world: "The woman writes about scary coke parties with the sort of authority F. Scott Fitzgerald used to apply to the gin-tub," says the Oregonian, while USA Today is impressed with her ability to make the heroine's "friendship with a fun-loving, black gay dwarf who is a legend in the world of bondage utterly believable." But there's skepticism about the sincerity of Wilson's disdain for fame. In the New York Times, Choire Sicha wonders, "if [Wilson] thinks celebrity is so sick, uh, what's with the author's glamorous head shots?" And the San Francisco Chronicle says "attacking a bunch of vacuous beautiful people is just the flip side of fawning over them." (Colors Insulting to Nature.)

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American Soldier, by Tommy Franks (ReganBooks). Perhaps reviews of the general's best-selling account of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are thin "because it is not hostile to George W. Bush," suggests the Washington Post. That's lucky for Franks because critics who have read American Soldier are decidedly unimpressed. "There is no nice way to say it," according to the Orlando Sentinel: "This book is shallow, one-sided, embarrassing and fraught with melodrama and self-aggrandizement." Franks adds little to what we already know about the two wars, and he "comes off as a bit tetchy," says the Post, particularly "in one extraordinary episode" when "he cusses out the Navy and Marine chiefs." He has nothing but praise for the administration, however, and the New Republic says that's exactly the problem: Franks "disdained fellow generals who questioned his strategy and glommed onto administration officials whose ideas about warfare were seriously flawed, creating a feedback loop that reinforced their mistakes." (American Soldier.)

Dracula, the Musical (Belasco Theatre). Frank Wildhorn may be the worst-reviewed composer in Broadway history, and his latest, Dracula, continues in the illustrious tradition of The Scarlet Pimpernel, Jekyll & Hyde, and The Civil War. The obvious gags—a "bloodless affair"; "talk about draining blood from the undead"; "fangs for nothing"—were irresistible to, um, bloodthirsty critics. But more original slams came from the Washington Post's Peter Marks—"the stage equivalent of a powerful muscle relaxant"—and the New York Times' Ben Brantley: "all the animation, suspense and sex appeal of a Victorian waxworks in a seaside amusement park." (Worst of all, "it isn't even good junk," added Newsday's Linda Winer.) Wildhorn didn't shoulder all the blame, though. The Wall Street Journal's Terry Teachout fingered "Villains-in-chief" Don Black and Christopher Hampton, who wrote "the awful words that gush from the stage like blood from a severed artery."

Ben Williams writes "Summary Judgment" forSlate.

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