Highlights from the week in criticism.

Highlights from the week in criticism.
Sept. 24 2004 4:35 PM

Best Forgotten

Julianne Moore's new movie offers less, not more.

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The Forgotten (Columbia/Sony). More "The Sixth Nonsense" than The Sixth Sense, The Forgotten mixes the memory loss and supernatural thriller genres into a "carefully cultivated murk," says Entertainment Weekly. Julianne Moore plays a Brooklyn mother trying to find out what happened to the dead son she's sure she remembers, even though all traces of his existence have disappeared. Usually mesmerizing, Moore's performance disappoints this time around: She "has all the emotional commitment of a bored kid playing with a light switch," scoffs Manohla Dargis: "sad, not sad, sad, not sad." The mood is similarly mercurial and "veers from moving to thrilling to wildly silly like a temperamental patient who has lost his meds," says the Dallas Observer. While a few critics enjoy the swings—"unabashed ludicrousness can be fun," says Carina Chocano in the Los Angeles Times—most throw up their hands at the ending. As the Chicago Tribune complains, "The final twist is "an elaborate cop-out." (Buy tickets to The Forgotten.)

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CSI: NY (CBS). As CSI rolls out its third edition, critics decide to air their pet theories about what makes it tick. Most obviously, the Los Angeles Times thinks the high-gloss injury effects are "fundamentally pornographic." More elaborately, the New Republic's Lee Siegel wheels out sociologist Georg Simmel to argue the show epitomizes "money culture." Its weekly forensic triumph insinuates that "[d]eath itself" has been "defeated"; its tech fetish shows that "with the right amount of money, you can buy the right technology and then no mean secret is safe from your probing, luminous eye." Meanwhile Alessandra Stanley speculates that CSI's clipped dialogue and suffering heroes gender it male (as opposed to the female Law & Order). Apparently, "just as men seem more apt to complain about colds, fatigue and other illnesses, they are more likely to cast themselves at the center of any event, even someone else's brutal death." (Read Dana Stevens' take in Slate.)

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The Motorcycle Diaries (Focus Features). Almost everyone agrees this chronicle of the 24-year-old Che Guevara's famous road trip across South America is beautifully shot and acted— Y Tu Mamá También's Gael García Bernal "gives a breakthrough performance," says Rolling Stone. But debate centers on whether the film's beatific, almost apolitical portrait sentimentalizes its subject. A.O. Scott praises it for avoiding ideological schematics in favor of "a lyrical exploration of the sensations and perceptions from which a political understanding of the world emerges"; the Village Voice thinks it's "lovely to look at but insipid, a lavishly illustrated Rough Guide to white liberal self-affirmation." (Comparisons with the empty iconography of Che T-shirts abound.) Others wonder if the movie could jump-start new trends. Perhaps "Communist nostalgia," suggests Entertainment Weekly. Or maybe depictions of "the fun-hunting years of history's most famous radicals," snarks Anthony Lane: "Look out for Trotsky: The Frat-House Years." (Read Paul Berman in Slate on the film.) (Buy tickets to The Motorcycle Diaries.)

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Lost (ABC). The latest series from Alias creator J.J. Abrams "brilliantly exploits several genres simultaneously," says the Baltimore Sun—including reality TV, '70s disaster movies, and Spielbergian monster horror. Forty-eight survivors of a plane crash find themselves on a remote tropical island with nothing but an unseen, terrible monster for company; the result is "a brain-free joy ride of good, honest, old-school entertainment," applauds the San Francisco Chronicle. Nobody's sure quite where Lost will go in future episodes, but everyone's willing to trust Abrams: The show "knows the buttons it wants to push … and pushes them, repeatedly, like a kid playing a video game," says the Los Angeles Times. Less trustworthy is ABC, which John Leonard refers to as "the Port-a-San of quality programming": The network's history of ineptitude leaves many feeling commitment-phobic. (Read Slate's review of Lost.)

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First Daughter (Fox). As if one movie about presidential daughters (Chasing Liberty) wasn't enough this year, Fox piles on another with First Daughter, starring Katie Holmes. "Has the soul of Paris Hilton hijacked Hollywood?" wonders the Philadelphia Inquirer, noting that 2004 has been "glutted with teenage movie heroines who are either hereditary or civic royalty." Not surprisingly, critics have little patience for First Daughter's "script-o-matic" formulas. The film is "about as believable, edifying and entertaining as the average political campaign ad," says the Chicago Tribune, and Holmes "looks pained, in a nonspecific way" by her "dull" role, according to Entertainment Weekly's Lisa Schwarzbaum. "Speaking of elections," concludes the Dallas Morning News, "it seems time to vote this genre out of office." (Buy tickets to First Daughter.)

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The Family: The Real Story of the Bush Dynasty, by Kitty Kelley (Doubleday). "If it's a sin, put it in": That's the motto of America's foremost "pathographer," says the Weekly Standard. But all of the sex, drugs, and alcohol revealed in this "painful colonoscopy" of a biography only make some reviewers like the Bushes more. "Curiously humanizing" stories paint them as "a regular family who are slightly dysfunctional," says the Cleveland Plain Dealer, and Britain's Daily Telegraph thinks Dubya emerges "with his reputation slightly strengthened." Nevertheless, few have much faith in Kelley's reporting: Endnotes that don't connect sources to quotes "are confusing as often as they are helpful," says the Baltimore Sun, and at times, "it seems as if Kelley flipped through a telephone book and asked random people what they thought of the Bushes," scoffs the Los Angeles Times. The result plays right into the Bushes' hands, complains Michiko Kakutani: Rather than dealing with substantive questions, they can "shrug off this book as a snarky exercise in gossip." (Read Slate's"Juicy Bits" on The Family.) (The Family.)

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The Falls, by Joyce Carol Oates (Ecco/HarperCollins). The latest from "the human Niagara Falls of American literature" is an epic tale of doomed love set against the backdrop of the Love Canal pollution trial. Oates is in prose-poetry mode here: She sustains a "heightened lyricism" and "semi-mystical tone" throughout, "in a frenzied, shaman-like attempt to hypnotize and seduce the reader," says the Los Angeles Times. The "sumptuous detail and breathless narrative" reminds reviewers of 19th-century literature while the "overwrought tension" is reminiscent of Douglas Sirk. But for most, prose overwhelms plot. The Denver Post calls The Falls"overwritten and maddeningly digressive," and the New York Times says the only thing moving the story along is a "generalized sense of dread: who's going over the railing next?" Still, Entertainment Weekly defends the "fascinating" woman at the story's center, calling her "a creature of steel—nicked, twisted, but somehow lovely." ( The Falls.)

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What We've Lost, by Graydon Carter (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). Who really wrote this compendium of facts and figures demonstrating the evil of the Bush administration? Was it "some low-level functionary on the Democratic National Committee," as Toby Young half-seriously speculates in the New York Observer? Or "Googling monkeys" on an all-nighter (Los Angeles Times)? Whoever it was, there's little evidence of the Vanity Fair editor's voice. The invective is disappointingly tame, according to the Los Angeles Times, and the book is so padded with stats, "[o]ne can almost hear the author wheezing as he staggers across the finish line," says Slate's Jacob Weisberg in the New York Times. (Everyone cites the 13-page list of Iraqi war dead as the most egregious example—except Republican strategist Kevin Phillips, who thinks the "repulsive" list "adds weight.") So why did Carter publish What We've Lost? Young facetiously suggests he's shoring up Democratic credentials for a run against New York's Mayor Bloomberg. (What We've Lost.)

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The Finishing School, by Muriel Spark (Doubleday). At 86, Spark is still the consummate craftswoman. She's "less a queen of special effects than an empress of literary sleight of hand," capable of capturing scenes and characters in half a sentence. This novel, set in a disreputable European finishing school whose writing teacher is overwhelmed with jealousy for his most talented students, is "oddly insubstantial," with "paper thin" characters (Los Angeles Times). But critics are just happy to watch a master at work. Spark's style "remains as sharp, even shocking, as it's always been," says Thomas Mallon in the New York Times—the reader is reduced to "a cowed novice sitting before the mother superior." And Britain's Guardian calls this "one of her funniest novels": "Its lightness is close to cartoon, its fluency is astonishingly athletic." ( The Finishing School.)

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