Highlights from the week in criticism.

Highlights from the week in criticism.
Sept. 17 2004 4:41 PM

Angelina's Fetish Garb

And other Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow observations.

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Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (Paramount). This retro sci-fi fable ups the ante on CGI effects, using them "to create reality itself in a way that even the latest batch of Star Wars films haven't dared," says the Onion. Starring Jude Law as a pilot who saves the world from robots, Gwyneth Paltrow as a reporter, and Angelina Jolie in "highly fetishized military drag," the film draws on every '30s source from Flash Gordon to Fritz Lang to create an "ethereal evocation of a pulp fiction future-past," according to the New York Times. With its "gauzy, dreamlike finish," it's a "movie designed to trigger the audience's imagination," says Premiere. But some critics refuse to dream—"There's an immediate detachment that takes hold" in computer-generated movies, says the Miami Herald. Others, like Salon, say Sky Captain lacks heart: This is more "a fancy mechanical toy than a work of art we can warm up to." (Buy tickets to Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.)

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Silver City (Newmarket). The barrage of anti-Bush films moves from documentary to film noir with John Sayles' thinly veiled allegory, Silver City. Chris Cooper stars as the subtly named Dickie Pilager, an empty-headed politician running for governor of Colorado in this "MoveOn redo of Chinatown." The Altman-sized cast of shifty fixers also includes Daryl Hannah, Billy Zane, and Richard Dreyfuss. Critics have little patience for Sayles' didactic approach, which has characters delivering lectures on privatization, corruption, and exploitation. He "doesn't think much of his audience, and the tone of his discourse is only nominally less pandering than a politician's," says the Village Voice. Entertainment Weekly adds, "He comes on as the Last Honest Filmmaker, but by now he may also be the dullest." (Buy tickets to Silver City.)

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Wimbledon (Universal). This is "the Björn Borg of romantic comedies: precise, good-looking, dependable and serviceable, if predictable," declares Carina Chocano in the Los Angeles Times. Paul Bettany stars as a lifelong tennis underachiever inspired to an unlikely Wimbledon finals run by his romance with star player Kirsten Dunst. (The plot is "a philosophical muddle," says Slate's David Edelstein: The tip for coaches seems to be "Get your players to fall in love, and they'll kill.") The stars' physiques aren't entirely convincing—Dunst is "thinner than the gut string on Venus Williams' racket," says the Philadelphia Inquirer. But "the 140 mph action—and the sweat—are palpable," thanks to the "swooping, zooming camera," says the Washington Post. Still, it's ultimately formula stuff. As the Miami Herald succinctly puts it, Wimbledon is "an excessively blond movie." (Buy tickets to Wimbledon.)

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Mr. 3000 (Touchstone). This Bernie Mac comedy "is a case of major-league talent stuck in a minor-league story," says the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Mac plays a selfish, egotistical baseball legend who returns to the game after he's robbed of his hits record by a stats error. Entertainment Weekly says Mac's predictable journey to redemption as a team player "has all the honest spontaneity of a postgame interview." But The Onion divines it's "a sign of the times"—audiences want athletes to behave like "decent human beings." Mac's performance mostly escapes criticism— Salon's surprisingly breathless Stephanie Zacharek even finds "an astonishing vulnerability" in his scenes with Angela Bassett. (Read David Edelstein's review.) (Buy tickets to Mr. 3000.)

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Sammy's Hill, by Kristin Gore (Miramax/Hyperion). Like "[Bridget] Jones Goes to Washington" or"a kinder, gentler Primary Colors," this first novel by Al Gore's daughter takes the chick lit template to Capitol Hill. The humor gene doesn't fall far from the tree, apparently: Most critics find Sammy's quirky insecurity more annoying than endearing. Her "wacky behavior makes a poor substitute for comedy," says Wonkette's Ana Marie Cox in the New York Times. (Although the Atlanta Journal-Constitution thinks Gore, an experienced TV writer, has a knack for the "situation comedy gag.") Beneath the romantic pratfalls, the family affiliations are obvious, sometimes disturbingly. The novel "hands out liberal bromides as if they were campaign buttons," says the Washington Post, and the New York Observer thinks Sammy's "real love," the senator, is a shoo-in for Daddy. Psychoanalytic concerns aside, "the Al Gores of this world do not make good fictional characters." (Sammy's Hill.)

Political art. The third anniversary of Sept. 11 has passed, and there's still "no significant work of fiction that addresses that day," laments the New Republic's Ruth Franklin, who demands "a New York novel" adapted to the new landscape. Fine art has done little better. Arthur C. Danto says in Artforum's special political art issue that the Whitney Biennial indicates "American artists are on balance satisfied with the existing political structure." And New York's Mark Stevens found "surprisingly little of note" in the way of protest as he surveyed galleries during the Republican National Convention: "Politics today is too abstract for the old handmade arts." ("There is an aura of defeat" about "the Old Arts," chimes in the Washington Post's Philip Kennicott.) But even the new arts are found wanting by the New York Times' Caryn James, who says today's politicized films (and plays) are "too short-sighted to be more than polemics, even when they try." That's an old problem, according to the New Republic's formalist Jed Perl, who thinks "the freestanding nature of art," rather than neat sloganeering, "is art's essential political message."

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LAX (NBC). It's 2004. Why set a glossy, old-fashioned dramedy in an airport? "Waiting in line, recycled air, civil servants who could not care less about your particular needs—they might as well have made 'DMV,' " cracks the Los Angeles Times. Willfully ignoring the fears associated with flying today, LAX, which stars Heather Locklear and Blair Underwood as rivals for the job of airport director, "doesn't just ring false when its gleeful soundtrack accompanies people coming through security; it makes you wonder if you've fallen into a TV Land time warp," marvels the Boston Globe. (Lone word from the other side: It's an "audacious hoot," says the Washington Post's Tom Shales.) The suave stars deserve better, complains Alessandra Stanley—Locklear should be taking Joan Collins-type roles, rather than freezing her face into "a Madame Tussaud's wax rendition of Tuesday Weld."

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The Inner Circle, by T.C. Boyle (Viking). This novelistic treatment of the sex cult Dr. Alfred Kinsey compelled his staffers to join is less titillating than it sounds, say disappointed critics. Boyle avoids "too many sticky details," informs the Boston Globe wistfully, "which is a pity, really." Most praise the portrayal of Kinsey himself—Boyle's "uncanny achievement" is to evoke "what it felt like to be there, to be sucked into close and secretive orbit around the Great Man," says the Houston Chronicle. But they also grow impatient with the flat tones of the "curiously passive and unsympathetic" researcher who narrates and whose marital drama becomes the main focus. What the book says about sex is ultimately "a bit recherché," according to Gary Indiana in the Los Angeles Times: "By casting Kinsey's research in a generally squalid, joyless light, The Inner Circle seems to affirm the repressive mores Kinsey exploded." (The Inner Circle.)

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The Egyptologist by Arthur Phillips (Random House). This author's follow-up to Prague is a "brainy animated cartoon in novel form" that juxtaposes the journal of an archaeologist who discovers an ancient Egyptian tomb with letters from an elderly detective suggesting a different story. Most critics think The Egyptologist is too long, and everyone guesses the ending, but the San Francisco Chronicle calls it "a work of imaginative prowess," and the Miami Herald admires "a brave, deft, high-wire act of storytelling." Michiko Kakutani, who's invariably hostile to any form of narrative trickery, is thus alone in finding it "increasingly self-indulgent and bloated." She also calls it "hollow," but others see insights into the solipsism of the traveler. The Chicago Tribune says that at its best, it reads "as though Phillips is rewriting Edward Said's Orientalism from the point of view of Bertie Wooster." (The Egyptologist.)

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