Highlights from the week in criticism.

Highlights from the week in criticism.
Aug. 6 2004 4:40 PM

Wait Until Shark

Bone-chilling Open Water impresses critics.

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Open Water (Lions Gate). This low-budget shocker shot on digital video and featuring real sharks follows a couple mistakenly left behind on a scuba-diving expedition. But Open Water"isn't much for traditional popcorn-movie scares," says the Miami Herald—it's "more interested in depicting the gradual deterioration of its protagonists' sanity." Some critics think that's scarier than a shark attack. The New York Times' A.O. Scott says Open Water fulfills "a primal anxiety" of abandonment, while the Philadelphia Inquirer claims "its depiction of man at the mercy of nature ... shakes you to the core." (The Dallas Observer, meanwhile, offers helpful service journalism: "There will be puking in some theaters, guaranteed, so if you're making it dinner and a movie, save the dinner for last.") Others are just bored. The Los Angeles Times called it "as much fun as watching someone pull the wings off a butterfly" and the Onion snipes that "grating characters and shaky grasp of filmcraft make it tempting to root for the sharks." (Read David Edelstein's review in Slate). (Buy tickets to Open Water.)

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Collateral (DreamWorks). Los Angeles "never sleeps; it doesn't even relax" in Michael Mann's new crime thriller. Tom Cruise "takes his all-American bravado into intriguingly dark places" as a contract killer, says the Onion, while Jamie Foxx, playing a cab driver commandeered by Cruise, "has evolved into a dramatic actor of depth and subtlety." But the city is the real star, judging by critics' rapturous response to Mann's digital camerawork. "The brackish, liquid tones" make "the two men appear to be navigating their way through a luxe Hades," swoons Peter Rainier in New York magazine, while the Village Voice's Michael Atkinson trips out on "the deep-focus negative space of electrified nightscapes, ghostly urban corridors, and barren freeway overdevelopment." Dialogue is more problematic: The Dallas Observer thinks it's "pseudo-existential gibberish and nickel-dime philosophizing" (this is a Michael Mann film, after all). Still, Variety says, Collateral is "a worthy Left Coast response to Scorsese's indelible portraits of nighttime New York." (Read David Edelstein's review in Slate.) (Buy tickets to Collateral.)

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Little Black Book (Columbia). This "irrefutably bad movie" (Los Angeles Times) stars Brittany Murphy as a reality-TV producer who confronts her boyfriend's exes after snooping in his PalmPilot. Though it sounds like formula romantic-comedy fare, Little Black Book is "actually disquietingly dark to the point of being downright disagreeable," according to the Dallas Observer. Critics find Murphy's character immoral and immature— Entertainment Weekly's Scott Brown says she has "mental and emotional deficiencies that would seem to rule out employment anywhere except a very tolerant taco shack"—and the script incoherent. The New York Times says, "Almost from the beginning, the film's sugary and rancid strains work against each other," and the Onion shudders that the film's "nasty twist" is "more Lars von Trier than Meg Ryan." (Buy tickets to Little Black Book.)

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Code 46 (United Artists/MGM). This dystopian sci-fi romance depicts a familiar future of haves and have-nots, regulated society, and noirish gloom. (It's "Blade Runner on meds," encapsulates the Village Voice's J. Hoberman.) The novelties: a plotline about genetic restrictions on reproduction and a reliance on real-life settings over special effects. "The dun-colored grandeur of contemporary Shanghai" is the backdrop for "an ominously plausible global nexus of the not-so-distant future," says Owen Gleiberman in Entertainment Weekly, and the depiction of strictly controlled travel doesn't seem so far away either—the storyline "might have been conceived during an interminable wait in an airport security line," says LA Weekly. But there's an old sci-fi problem—"the movie's atmosphere is, in many ways, more interesting than its story," complains A.O. Scott in the New York Times—and stars Tim Robbins and Samantha Morton aren't in alignment. "Their doomy romance is supposed to be fated, but it just seems sloggy," yawns New York magazine's Peter Rainier. (Buy tickets to Code 46.)

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Doom 3 (id Software). The video-game world breaks into frenzy today as the long-awaited new installment of PC gorefest Doom hits stores. Early reviewers are left breathless. PC Gamer calls Doom 3 "a masterpiece of the art form;" the Associated Press says the graphics are "nearly equal to animated films like Shrek 2;" and Telefragged's reviewer waxes lyrical: "The gore is excessive and realistic, without resorting to camp, and the descent into Hell itself is not without its own myriad of devilish imagery." The secret? "Light," according to Time book critic Lev Grossman (who was excited enough to write two articles). Technical director John Carmack has "figured out how to make photons bounce around in a virtual space in much the same way that they do in the real world." If there's a weakness, it appears to be game-play, which isn't breaking any boundaries. As Gamers Hell puts it, "95% of the time you're running around shooting things." (Doom 3.)

Growing Up Gotti (A&E). The latest vanity reality series stars John Gotti scion Victoria, who's out to prove her life has nothing to do with the mob. But critics have little sympathy for that sob story (Gotti has "mastered the trick of decrying the public perception of her in order to exploit the public perception of her," says Lee Siegel in the New Republic), and they go straight for the New Money jugular. Alessandra Stanley in the New York Times snipes that Gotti "looks like Donatella Versace and dresses like Jessica Rabbit," while the Boston Globe dismisses her as "a shallow, smug woman who's as hard and sharp as her daggerlike fingernails," and Siegel rants about "this vain, bleached creature, with the gold, and the accent like a drill in your ear." Gotti doubtless doesn't care about such snobbery, though, and one of her sole defenders, the Wall Street Journal appreciates "how little posturing goes on here."

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Wake Up, Sir! by Jonathan Ames (Scribner). This "Wodehouse novel for the recovery era" follows an alcoholic novelist and his (probably) imaginary butler to a Yaddoesque artists' colony in upstate New York. Critics stop laughing long enough to call it "a hilarious romp" and "a superlative performance." Everyone agrees the slight plot isn't up to the master's standards, but Ames manages "a pretty good facsimile of Wodehousean badinage, some of it sharpened to a 21st-century edge," says the Washington Post—and "the book has a dark side that its model never approached," according to Newsday. Though Ames has accomplished what the Post calls the "lewding up of Wodehouse," he seems to be toning his own persona down, says New York, in an attempt to transform from "cult star" to "marketable character." The Oregonian misses the old Jonathan, complaining the story is "too thin to allow Ames'engaging woe-is-me voice and psychological disclosures to shine." (Wake Up, Sir!)

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I, Fatty, by Jerry Stahl (Bloomsbury). Hollywood screenwriter Stahl employs an "ingenious structure" to tell the story of silent film star Fatty Arbuckle: The first celebrity scandal victim recounts his life into a tape recorder in exchange for shots of heroin. Stahl channels Arbuckle's voice so convincingly, "you almost think Fatty dictated the novel from heaven's larder," applauds the Baltimore Sun. But something more than just writing talent may be involved, suggests Entertainment Weekly. Stahl, himself a former heroin addict, "identifies so eagerly" with Arbuckle that there's "something protective and affectionate in [his] call-me-blubber-thighed rant, lament, and eulogy." Maybe Stahl identifies a little too much: Newsday thinks Arbuckle's voice "overwhelms I, Fatty," and "the book feels like a torrent of vaudeville patter rather than a novel."The Washington Post sees a wider context, however, arguing that Stahl "gives us a crash course in what the movies were, and are," which resonates right up to present-day trials-by-media. ( I, Fatty.)

Ben Williams writes "Summary Judgment" forSlate.

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